California Polytechnic State University has settled a lawsuit with a student who was disciplined for posting a flier more than a year ago that some students said was offensive.
“This sends a message to college administrators that says you can’t censor speech by re-characterizing it,” said Curt Levey, one of the attorneys in the case and a spokesman for the nonprofit law firm that represented the student, Steve Hinkle.
University counsel Carlos Cordova said, “Cal Poly has believed throughout it could have successfully defended against this lawsuit,” but that “Cal Poly entered into the agreement to avoid the cost of further litigation.”
In settling the case, the university agreed to expunge Mr. Hinkle’s disciplinary record in relation to the incident, refrain from interfering when he posts fliers and pay $40,000 in attorney fees.
The university also denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Cordova’s statement indicated that the current policies and standards will remain.
Mr. Hinkle said he is “vindicated” by the results of the case.
“This is definitely a victory for free speech for all students at Cal Poly,” he said.
In the Nov. 12, 2002, incident that led to the case, Mr. Hinkle posted a flier for a College Republicans-sponsored speech by Mason Weaver, a black social critic whose book “It’s OK to Leave the Plantation” likens dependence on government to slavery.
Students in the campus multicultural center said they were offended by the flier and called campus police.
The flier showed Mr. Weaver, the title of his book and information about the speech. The offended students said the flier had disrupted a meeting, an assertion that became the basis of disciplinary action.
“Basically,” Mr. Hinkle said, “the university claimed that the students were so offended by the content of the flier that they couldn’t have a Bible study they had scheduled for later that night.”
According to a report, after campus police responded to students’ complaints about “a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature,” the university’s Judicial Affairs Office found Mr. Hinkle guilty in February 2003 of disrupting a campus event.
As punishment, Mr. Hinkle said, he was told to write letters of apology to the offended students, attend a meeting to discuss “racial healing” and meet with a university psychologist to discuss “emotional barriers,” but he refused.
Mr. Hinkle turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that tries to resolve free-speech issues through letter writing and publicity. When FIRE’s efforts were unsuccessful, the Center for Individual Rights filed suit on Mr. Hinkle’s behalf in California district court.
The lawsuit, filed on Sept. 25, in conjunction with Mr. Hinkle’s local counsel, contended that the university’s use of a “disruption” policy to punish speech was unconstitutionally vague.