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.