Today’s press release announces that San Francisco State University (SFSU) is investigating the College Republicans for holding an anti-terrorism protest on campus last October. During the protest, the College Republicans stepped on paper they had painted to represent the Hamas and Hezbollah flags. Unbeknownst to the protesters, the flags they copied bear the word “Allah.”
The SFSU student government, Associated Students, Inc., passed a resolution condemning the College Republicans, and other students filed complaints with the university claiming that the College Republicans walked on a banner with the word “Allah” written in Arabic script.
FIRE wrote to SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan on January 23, stating that stepping on a flag—even burning an American flag—is unquestionably protected by the Constitution. We cited the decision in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), where the Supreme Court held that burning a flag as part of a political protest is expression protected by the First Amendment. To SFSU’s claim that the College Republicans violated a religious symbol, FIRE wrote, “Just as SFSU could not punish students for taking Jesus’ name in vain or for driving a car on the Jewish sabbath, it cannot punish students for stepping on a makeshift flag bearing the word ‘Allah.’”
SFSU responded on January 29 with a letter from university counsel saying that SFSU would proceed with the investigation in order “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.” But SFSU has gone further than a cursory investigation. Joey Greenwell, Director of the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development (OSPLD), could have dismissed the charges after he concluded his investigation or could have settled the complaint with an “informal resolution of charges.” Instead, the case is being sent before the Student Organization Hearing Panel (SOHP), where a panel of students, faculty, and staff will render a verdict. Members of the College Republicans inform FIRE that two of the students serving on the SOHP panel are representatives from the Associated Students, Inc., the group which passed a unanimous resolution condemning the protest. If the group is found guilty, possible punishments range from a letter of warning to revocation of the College Republicans’ recognition.
SFSU is already being condemned in the press for its actions. Debra Saunders had an excellent column in the San Francisco Chronicle today about SFSU, and Eugene Volokh has blogged about the case on The Volokh Conspiracy. FIRE is prepared to oppose SFSU until all the accusations against the College Republicans for holding a political protest are dismissed.