As our press release today announces, San Francisco State University (SFSU) has found the College Republicans not guilty of allegations of incitement, creating a hostile environment, and actions of incivility. SFSU President Robert Corrigan stated in a letter to FIRE yesterday that “the Student Organization Hearing Panel (SOHP) unanimously concluded that the College Republicans organization had not violated the Student Code of Conduct and that there were no grounds to support the student complaint lodged against them.”
That complaint was filed after the College Republicans held an anti-terrorism rally on October 17, 2006, during which they stepped on paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah.
SFSU’s decision comes after months of public pressure from FIRE, national media, and a concerned public, all expressing outrage that a public institution would investigate and try students for engaging in constitutionally protected political expression. FIRE wrote a letter to President Corrigan on January 23 informing him of the overwhelming constitutional jurisprudence supporting the College Republicans’ right to political protest of this sort. When SFSU announced that it would go forward with a hearing on March 9, both FIRE and the ACLU of Northern California sent letters to President Corrigan reminding him again of the constitutional issues at stake and urging him to cancel the hearing.
Yesterday, almost five months after SFSU began its foray into prosecuting free speech, the university recognized what FIRE and the ACLU have already made explicitly clear—that a public institution cannot and must not punish speech, even if it expresses an unpopular idea, offends the sensibilities of some, or disrespects a religious symbol.
President Corrigan seems to recognize that the investigation and hearing process that led to this attack on free speech are fundamentally flawed; he wrote in his letter to FIRE: “[i]t is clear that in one respect, the SOHP policy did not work well. I consider the time that elapsed between the lodging of the complaint and the resolution of the matter unacceptable, and we have already made a change to rectify that problem. We are also looking more comprehensively at the policy.”
Hopefully, SFSU will follow through with this promise, and has learned that putting students on trial for political expression is neither a lawful nor popular way to deal with students’ complaints. Nonetheless, FIRE and an increasingly aware public will doubtless keep a close eye on SFSU.