Fighting Fire with FIRE: Freedom of Speech on Campus

Brendan Pringle is an English sophomore and a Mustang Daily political columnist

Free speech is the cornerstone of American government and the foundation of democracy. We have all heard the unusual arguments for free speech in situations of burning flags, but we often fail to acknowledge the day-to-day restriction of free speech on college campuses.

College campuses are perceived to be the exemplum of free speech. During the Vietnam War, organized groups of college students held some of the largest demonstrations in the history of America, and gained considerable media attention with their mass protests against government policy.

Well, four decades have come and gone, and the concept of free speech seems to be fading away as well. Students are still protesting against the government’s foreign policy and social issues, but the times have changed, and “freedom of speech” has gradually come to mean “freedom of liberal speech.” The conservative voice is frequently muted on campus under the social pressure of professors and peers alike. Conservative students feel like they have to look both ways before talking politics or discussing their viewpoints.

Cal Poly did not receive national media attention for its activism during the Vietnam era, and its largest student protest was probably the Poly Royal Riot of 1990, which was over alcohol. Nonetheless, restrictions on free speech have become more and more prevalent on our campus. The issue exploded in 2002 when Cal Poly officials tried to censor a student who was simply exercising one of his First Amendment rights.

Most current students are probably unaware of this major controversy, in which Poly student Steve Hinkle posted a flyer on the Multicultural Center bulletin board announcing a Cal Poly-sponsored speech by social critic Mason Weaver.

The flier contained the title of Weaver’s book, It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, as well as his picture, and the time and place of the event. The flyer was misinterpreted as being racially offensive when the speaker was actually arguing that government dependence has placed African-Americans into “circumstances similar to slavery.”

Hinkle was reported to the police, and accused of “disrupting” a bible study group at the Multicultural Center. The Cal Poly Office of Judicial Affairs deemed it a “disruption of a campus event,” even though there was never proof of an “official” event at that location and time. Hinkle had quietly posted the flier, and was “civil” during the entire engagement. Although the Judicial Affairs Office argued that the matter had nothing to do with First Amendment rights, it was clear that their argument of a “disruption” was merely a false cover-up. Hinkle refused to apologize, as demanded by Cal Poly, and the university was soon under FIRE.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (commonly known as FIRE), which prides itself in defending and sustaining individual rights on college campuses, took Hinkle’s case immediately. After a seven hour long hearing, Cal Poly refused to restore Hinkle’s basic First Amendment rights. FIRE organized a lawsuit against President Baker and other administrators, and made the case nationally known.

In the end, Cal Poly settled, but not until they suffered nationwide embarrassment and significant legal fees for their blatant rejection of individual rights. It is also important to note that Cal Poly never actually apologized for their wrongdoing, but simply dropped the case without explanation. So much for setting an example.

The college campus is supposed to be a place where students are encouraged to stand up for their beliefs and discuss their opinions with others. It is troubling to see campuses restrict free speech, and take the politically correct side of an argument, instead of the one with the greatest constitutional support. Political “sensitivity” should never infringe upon basic individual rights.

Tonight, the Cal Poly College Republicans and Office of Student Affairs will be hosting Adam Kissel, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program for FIRE. Mr. Kissel will be discussing freedom of speech on college campuses in further depth. The presentation will be from 7-8 p.m. in 52-E27. This event is free to the general public, and I encourage your attendance. Freedom of speech is a constitutional right; as the future of America, we need to work actively to promote and defend it.

  • Scott

    You claim that freedom of speech is becoming “freedom of liberal speech” on college campuses. First, it seems a bit weird for you to write that in the long-running conservative column.

    More importantly, you didn’t do a very good job proving your point. I’ve read all your columns, and – at least politically – we have little in common. Still, I read your columns because I’m genuinely interested in what you think/how you interpret the world. Your whole premise – that colleges are suppressing conservative speech is supported by one example from 8 years ago. And in the end, Cal Poly settled the matter and paid out. You complain that they didn’t admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but that’s the way most settlements go.

    By the way, when the whole lawsuit was happening back in 03-04ish i was here at Cal Poly and the Mustang Daily covered it in depth. There was no cover-up; it wasn’t some plot to keep conservatives down.

    I feel you wrote this to promote the FIRE presentation, and that’s just fine – I didn’t know anything about the organization until I read your piece. I think this would have worked better if you had talked more about FIRE and given more than one example of their work. Sure, FIRE gets a lot of grants from conservative foundations (www.sourcewatch.org), but why not try humanizing their cause instead of politicizing it?

  • anonymous

    Cal Poly, whether due to the 2002 incident or not, has proven to me that they are generally taking correct actions with respect to freedom of speech. Last year during the Crops House incident the campus community nearly universally condemned the actions of certain members of our community. Despite this, the administration correctly did not take punitive actions against those responsible. Instead, the administration realized that despite the odiousness of the speech and display involved, it was nonetheless protected by the 1st amendment. The argument that Cal Poly is anti-conservative with respect to speech seems unjustified.

  • http://www.rogerfreberg.com/blog ROGER FREBERG

    Folks, visit thefire.org website and do a search on Cal Poly and you will find it most enlightening. The 2002 incident was not an isolated incident at Cal Poly, there is an impressive history of questionable administrative actions including the abortive ‘CARE-net’.

    The concept that conservatives are discriminated in academia is not some idle rant… it has well researched foundations. Books that claim that political correctness is a myth have been completely discredited…

    The Steve Hinkle case was covered in national news where Cal Poly was heavily condemned. President Warren Baker was awarded the ‘Sheldon’ award by U.S. News & World Report for the worst record by a college President on ‘free speech.’

    If you took the time to meet Adam Kissel last night, you would have had the chance to gain the perspective of what FIRE is all about and learn what the rights of students are on campus today… he gave five examples of issues represented by FIRE on Cal Poly campus today…. including the crop house and Harris ranch.

    Because free speech issues are not important to you is only because no one has yet infringed on your free speech… but the pendulum has a way of changing quickly… and by defending someone else’s speech… you defend your rights in the long run as well.

    For those who think no one’s rights have been violated on the Cal Poly campus, it is clear that you haven’t talked to the right people… or maybe these are people who you feel ‘deserve’ to have their rights trampled. Be careful, the quick path towards institutionalized abusive behavior is a slippery slope.

    Cal Poly is about to make a significant misstep… stay tuned.

    Roger Freberg

  • http://www.rogerfreberg.com/blog ROGER FREBERG

    Folks, visit thefire.org website and do a search on Cal Poly and you will find it most enlightening. The 2002 incident was not an isolated incident at Cal Poly, there is an impressive history of questionable administrative actions including the abortive \’CARE-net\’.

    The concept that conservatives are discriminated in academia is not some idle rant… it has well researched foundations. Books that claim that political correctness is a myth have been completely discredited…

    The Steve Hinkle case was covered in national news where Cal Poly was heavily condemned. President Warren Baker was awarded the \’Sheldon\’ award by U.S. News & World Report for the worst record by a college President on \’free speech.\’

    If you took the time to meet Adam Kissel last night, you would have had the chance to gain the perspective of what FIRE is all about and learn what the rights of students are on campus today… he gave five examples of issues represented by FIRE on Cal Poly campus today…. including the crop house and Harris ranch.

    Because free speech issues are not important to you is only because no one has yet infringed on your free speech… but the pendulum has a way of changing quickly… and by defending someone else\’s speech… you defend your rights in the long run as well.

    For those who think no one\’s rights have been violated on the Cal Poly campus, it is clear that you haven\’t talked to the right people… or maybe these are people who you feel \’deserve\’ to have their rights trampled. Be careful, the quick path towards institutionalized abusive behavior is a slippery slope.

    Cal Poly is about to make a significant misstep… stay tuned.

    Roger Freberg

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