Free Speech at Cal Poly

It doesn’t happen very much any more, but stories used to surface about some isolated school or school district, usually in the South, conducting formal collective prayers. Usually, some small town, where everyone attends a few local churches, doesn’t see the harm in a modest measure of collective religious instruction and ceremony, even in a public school context. Inevitably, a newcomer moves in and complains. If a school does not adjust its policies, the courts instruct the offending school to cease conducting prayers. While it is not possible to peer with a high degree of certainty into people’s hearts, it is usually the case that these small town schools did not deliberately set out to offend anyone. It is just by living in a religiously uniform environment they had not developed the habits of recognizing that others might believe differently.

By contrast, the last place one would expect to see intolerance and the inability to recognize the peaceful existence of alternative ideas ought to be a modern university. A college or university ought to be an intellectual free-fire zone. While all ideas may not be universally accepted and certainly do not all have the same merit, they all have the right to be expressed and examined in the crucible of thoughtful debate. Furthermore, one would expect that the administration of any university would be particularly careful to insure that the ethos of open inquiry is maintained, free of intimidation. Lately it appears that at some universities an environment of intimidation prevails for ideas that are not in current favor. One such place is California Polytechnic State University.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), on November 12, 2002, Steve Hinkle, a member of the Cal Poly College Republicans (CPCP) was going around campus posting fliers inviting students and faculty to a speech by the author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, by Mason Weaver. Mr. Weaver is a black man whose thesis is that the reliance of black Americans on government programs creates a dependency broadly analogous to slavery. Mr. Weaver’s speech was an officially sponsored campus activity.

Apparently, Hinkle committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to post a flier on a public bulletin board in an open student lounge in the Cal Poly Multicultural Center. Other students objected to the posting finding the flier (the flier listed the name of the speaker, the title of his book and the time and location of the speech) offensive. Intimidated, Hinkle left without posting the flier. This did not stop students from calling the campus police about “a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature.” The police arrived, but by that time Hinkle had left.

Now it is clear that Cal Poly could not sanction Hinkle for posting a flier, first it was perfectly appropriate and second he was prevented from posting it. Instead, the university out of fear of offending students at the Multicultural Center charged Hinkle with disrupting a college activity. The campus police did not report a disruption and there was not any official activity going on in the open student lounge. After the fact, students at the Multicultural Center said Hinkle was disrupting student Bible study. Everyone admits that Hinkle did not approach any students, but that students approached Hinkle. Further there was no sign indicating that a meeting was being conducted in the lounge. To all outward appearances, there were just some students in the lounge eating pizza.

Rather than sanctioning students for preventing someone from engaging in protected speech, the Cal Poly Administration held a hearing on whether to punish Hinkle. Though Hinkle had a faculty advisor, he was specifically forbidden from being represented by a private attorney at the hearing. At the hearing, Cornel Morton, vice president of student affairs said to Mr. Hinkle, “You are a white member of CPCR. To students of color, this may be a collision of experience. The chemistry has racial implications, and you are na├»ve not to acknowledge those.” In other words, there are certain places on campus where conservative whites should know better than to visit.

Imagine the opposite, though analogous situation. Imagine if a black student sought to post a flier for a campus-sponsored speech and if some white students had intimidated him into not posting the flier and called the campus police about a “suspicious black male.” Imagine further a college administrator who would condescendingly lecture the black student that he should know better than to post such a flier in an area frequented by white students. Everyone would be rightly indignant and my guess is that Mr. Morton would have led the charge to protect the rights of a student to post a flier on a public bulletin board.

Nonetheless, Hinkle has been found guilty of disrupting a student meeting and instructed to write an apology letter or face the possibility of expulsion. Hinkle has refused and no additional punishment has been meted out. The case has received national attention and the university is obviously not comfortable defending its actions. It is quietly hoping the issue will fade away. If not for the embarrassment of the public exposure of its attempt to permit and implicitly condone the intimidation of students, Hinkle would likely have received additional punishment. It is clear that the students at the Cal Poly Multicultural Center have won. It will take a very courageous student to again attempt to post a flier at the Multicultural Center for a conservative speaker.

In many ways, some colleges have become the most intolerant places to be. One would hate to live in a world ruled with the same arbitrary iron fists that some modern college campuses are governed. Unlike small town elementary schools, universities can not claim lack of sophistication as an excuse.

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