Progress at Cal Poly, but Concerns Remain

May 22, 2009

Last week, we reported that California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) removed a disturbing bias incident policy from its website shortly after FIRE sent the university a letter criticizing the policy’s infringement on faculty rights to free speech, academic freedom, and due process. The “CARE-Net” initiative encouraged students to report any speech “that is perceived to be malicious or discriminatory toward another person or group based on bias or prejudice relating to [certain enumerated personal characteristics].” The website also promised that a mechanism for anonymous online reporting was forthcoming, a development that posed a serious threat to due process rights. Perhaps most disturbingly, one of the “CARE-Net advocates" tasked with receiving and responding to the bias incident reports told Cal Poly’s student newspaper, the Mustang Daily, that the new initiative was aimed in part at punishing "that teacher who isn’t politically correct or is hurtful in their actions or words."

This week, David Conn—Cal Poly’s Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Undergraduate Education—wrote an article in the Mustang Daily that indicates Cal Poly may be backing away from the worst parts of CARE-Net. He writes that while students may still report any bias incidents, “the response will vary, depending on the nature of the concern …. For example, in instances where the incident involves speech that is constitutionally protected, the community advocate would lend a sympathetic ear to the offended individual and perhaps help identify options for communicating concerns back to the individual whose words gave offense.” This would be an appropriate response—countering “offensive” speech with more speech. And given the way CARE-Net was presented in the earlier Mustang Daily article, this sounds like a very positive development.

Nonetheless, FIRE still has serious concerns about Cal Poly’s intentions with regard to CARE-Net and about whether the program can be implemented in a manner that does not chill free expression on campus. First, Conn writes in the Mustang Daily that the concerns about CARE-Net arose despite the fact that “the program is still under development and has not yet been implemented.” This simply isn’t true, though—until at least May 5, CARE-Net was up and running on Cal Poly’s website, complete with the definition of a bias incident and a phone number and e-mail address to request a CARE-Net advocate. So Conn’s implication that concern over CARE-Net was premature is disingenuous, raising questions about whether the university is now being upfront about CARE-Net or is merely trying to quiet criticism.

FIRE is also concerned that an initiative encouraging students to report any “malicious” speech on campus simply cannot be implemented without having a chilling effect on campus expression. Conn writes in his article that CARE-Net “will play a role similar in some respects to that of a traditional ombuds.” Why not, then, simply employ a traditional ombudsman who will provide a sympathetic ear to students with any concerns over their treatment on campus?

We are encouraged that Cal Poly has taken down the original CARE-Net materials from its website and is reconsidering how to implement this program in a manner consistent with its obligation as a public institution to comply with the First Amendment. But we think the real question is not how to implement the program, but whether to implement it at all.

Schools:  California Polytechnic State University

Cases:  California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly): Bias Reporting System Targets “Politically Incorrect” Professors