In a crucial victory for free expression, San Francisco State University (SFSU) announced yesterday that its College Republicans will face no punishment for hosting an anti-terrorism rally at which participants stepped on makeshift Hezbollah and Hamas flags. SFSU's decision comes after months of pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), national and local media, and the public – all of which called on the school to uphold the students' constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression.
"We are relieved that SFSU has come to its senses and recognized that it cannot punish students for constitutionally protected expression," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "But the fact remains that the university should never have investigated or tried them in the first place. This was a protected act of political protest and it is impossible to believe the university did not know that from the start."
SFSU's shameful attack on free expression began after an October 17, 2006 anti-terrorism rally at which several members of the College Republicans stepped on pieces of paper they had painted to resemble Hamas and Hezbollah flags. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contained the word "Allah" written in Arabic script. On October 26, a student filed a formal complaint with the university against the College Republicans, alleging "attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment" and "actions of incivility." Although university administrators could have settled the matter informally or dismissed the charges outright, the university instead chose to press forward with a hearing on the charges.
FIRE wrote to SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan on January 23, 2007, to stress that no American public institution can lawfully prosecute students for engaging in political protest or for desecrating religious symbols. SFSU replied to FIRE's letter on January 29 by saying that the university would continue to investigate the complaint. When SFSU scheduled a hearing for March 9, FIRE immediately wrote to President Corrigan again to urge him to call off the hearing. Undeterred by clearly established constitutional jurisprudence, SFSU went forward with the hearing as scheduled. President Corrigan then responded to FIRE on March 13, once again standing by the university's disciplinary process.
Yesterday afternoon, President Corrigan wrote to FIRE with the welcome news 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."
"SFSU has finally done what it should have done months ago," FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. "The College Republicans should never have been dragged through an investigation and hearing for their protected political expression, and it is an outrage that SFSU carried on with this for so long when it had the power to dismiss the charges informally. We hope that SFSU will make whatever policy changes are necessary to ensure that this does not happen again."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.