FIRE is seeking additional accountability from San Francisco State University administrators after former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines faced substantial disruption last week during a speaking engagement on gender and sports. On Monday, SFSU Director of Communications Bobby King responded to our concerns by sharing the statement President Lynn Mahoney sent to the university community. The statement asserts that Mahoney is “proud to say that the First Amendment was honored” that night.
To be clear, the students who protested the event without disrupting it engaged in First Amendment-protected activity. But those who stomped and yelled to drown Gaines out during her appearance, or accosted her in the halls to intimidate her, did not.
But the facts demonstrate there’s much more work for the university to do, as video shows the event devolved into a serious disruption.
Viral footage of the event shows students chanting, shouting, and stomping inside the room and in the hallway during Gaines’ speech. Footage also shows police escorting Gaines to a private room as protestors surround her in the hallway, screaming in her face as they follow her.
Public universities have a duty under the First Amendment to ensure students can hold expressive events on campus without substantial disruptions. The video of the Gaines event clearly shows SFSU failed in that duty given the disruption that escalated into mob mayhem.
FIRE sent a letter yesterday explaining to the university that it failed to honor students’ First Amendment rights that night and encouraging it to do better to uphold those rights in the future, especially in cases of growing disruption that requires police involvement. FIRE also called on SFSU to investigate its administrators’ and campus police’s response to the disruption at the Gaines event to ensure they took appropriate action to satisfy the university’s duty, rather than enabling or prolonging the disruption.
As we explained last week, the heckler’s veto — substantial disruption of expressive events — is not protected speech. To be clear, the students who protested the event without disrupting it engaged in First Amendment-protected activity. But those who stomped and yelled to drown Gaines out during her appearance, or accosted her in the halls to intimidate her, did not.
SFSU needs to take a hard look at its response to the Gaines event and ensure that sufficient safeguards and procedures are in place to protect free speech for everyone, even and especially in the face of an escalating disruption and attempted heckler’s veto.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...