SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., February 8, 2007—In a profound display of disrespect for free speech, San Francisco State University (SFSU) is investigating its College Republicans for hosting an anti-terrorism rally on campus in which participants stepped on makeshift Hezbollah and Hamas flags. After students filed a complaint claiming they were offended because the flags bore the word “Allah,” SFSU initiated an investigation into accusations of incitement, creation of a hostile environment, and incivility. Members of the College Republicans then contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for assistance.
“At a public university, stepping on a flag—even burning an American flag—is without question a constitutionally protected act of political protest,” FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said. “The right to protest is at the very heart of the First Amendment, and means nothing if only inoffensive expression is permitted.”
The College Republicans’ “offense” took place on October 17, 2006, when they held an anti-terrorism protest in SFSU’s Malcolm X Plaza. During the protest, several members of the group stepped on butcher paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contain the word “Allah” written in Arabic script.
On October 26, a student filed a formal complaint with the university against the College Republicans. By December, Director of the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development (OSPLD) Joey Greenwell notified the College Republicans in an e-mail that the complaint accused them of “walking on a banner with the word ‘Allah’ written in Arabic script,” which led to “allegations of attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment” and “allegations of actions of incivility.” Greenwell also stated that the OSPLD had concluded its investigation and had passed the case along to the Student Organization Hearing Panel (SOHP), a panel of students, faculty, and staff members who will deliver a verdict on the charges.
The College Republicans contacted FIRE, which wrote to SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan on January 23, 2007, to protest SFSU’s unlawful actions and to remind this public university of its obligations to protect students’ constitutional rights. FIRE’s letter emphasized that “incitement” and creating a “hostile environment” are legal terms that are not applicable to the College Republicans’ actions of stepping on a flag. FIRE wrote that “SFSU has a duty to uphold the First Amendment rights of all of its students, even if their expressive activity offends the religious sensibilities of some.”
SFSU replied to FIRE’s letter on January 29 by saying that the university is investigating the complaint “to give all parties the confidence that they will be heard and fairly treated by a panel that includes representatives of all the University’s key constituencies.” Yet students report that OSPLD has the power to dismiss baseless charges after concluding an investigation. SFSU’s student group misconduct procedures also give OSPLD Director Greenwell the option of settling the complaint with an “informal resolution of charges.” Instead, Greenwell passed the case along for trial before SOHP. If SOHP finds the College Republicans guilty, punishment could range from a letter of warning to the revocation of recognition.
“In a free society, neither SFSU nor any other agency of the government has the power to investigate a group simply for disrespecting a religious symbol,” FIRE’s Shibley said. “By continuing this investigation, SFSU is not just charting new territory in campus repression, but its actions come into direct conflict with the United States Constitution. The charges against the College Republicans must be immediately dismissed.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Robert Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert A. Corrigan, President, SFSU: 415-338-1381; email@example.com
Joey Greenwell, Director of the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development, SFSU: 415-338-3885; firstname.lastname@example.org