This Month in FIRE History: San Francisco State University Investigates Students for Anti-Terrorism Protest

By February 17, 2012

Five years ago this month, FIRE first publicized a case at San Francisco State University (SFSU) that ignited public attention and eventually led to a significant legal victory for student rights. 

In October 2006, the College Republicans at San Francisco State University held an anti-terrorism rally on campus, during which they stepped on makeshift Hezbollah and Hamas flags. In response, several students filed complaints with the school, protesting that they were offended because the flags bore the word "Allah" (written in Arabic), a fact unknown to the College Republicans. Rather than defend the constitutional rights of its students to peaceably protest, SFSU initiated an investigation into charges of incitement, creation of a hostile environment, and incivility. 

When FIRE intervened, we reminded SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan that the First Amendment guarantees the right to offensive expression, even the kind that may denigrate the beliefs of others. Furthermore, as our Robert Shibley pointed out, "stepping on a flag—even burning an American flag—is without question a constitutionally protected act of political protest." Despite this, SFSU moved forward with its investigation, referring the case for a hearing before the Student Organization Hearing Panel (SOHP). Fortunately, the panel found no grounds for the charges and dismissed the case. 

Nonetheless, SFSU had forced the College Republicans to submit to a months-long investigation simply for exercising their constitutionally protected rights. This intransigence was a symptom of much deeper problems-the school’s speech codes. One policy regulating student organizations went so far as to ban any conduct "inconsistent with SF State goals, principles, and policies," a code which was central to the school’s charges against the College Republicans.

The College Republicans filed suit to overturn the restrictive policies and establish a new climate for free expression at SFSU. Their case helped propel the school’s treatment of free speech to the fore, and in the face of the lawsuit, SFSU settled and revised its policies. This success helped to establish a legal precedent that will protect student rights for years to come.

The case spurred considerable public attention, eliciting stories in outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Washington Times. It has also become just one of many cases FIRE has encountered involving censorship of discussion and debate regarding terrorism. For example, Penn State student Josh Stulman was similarly targeted after his artistic exploration of terrorism was labeled offensive. FIRE went on to win that case, and it became the center of our video exploring these issues, Portraits of Terror. Stulman’s own experience and the SFSU case are clear examples of a campus culture that prefers to shut down discussion rather than encourage debate—the very thing most called for in considering such controversial topics as terrorism. 

Schools: San Francisco State University Cases: San Francisco State University: Students Investigated for Stepping on Flags