The crops house incident, the Michael Pollan controversy and the Steve Hinkle case were all discussed on Feb. 17 in a speech hosted by the Cal Poly College Republicans.
Adam Kissel, director of the individual rights defense program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), spoke for more than an hour, highlighting rights issues and cases from across the nation, including some that have occurred at Cal Poly. Kissel was introduced by materials engineering senior Eric Blank, president of the College Republicans.
“The College Republicans felt that there were a lot of free speech issues on campus. It’s a necessity for people to be able to freely say what they want,” Blank said. “We wanted to bring someone in to educate about it and let students know their rights.”
FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain individual rights on college campuses, Kissel said. Those rights include freedom of speech, conscience, equality, association and due process. FIRE is a non-partisan group that will protect any individual or group having their rights denied, he said. The group is involved in numerous cases across the country and has offices located in Philadelphia and New York.
“You have to protect everyone’s speech,” Blank said. “You don’t know when a majority view might become the minority view in terms of free speech.”
Kissel began his talk with examples of violations of student rights from across the country. These violations included cases about controversial books being read in staff rooms, offensive postings on dorm room walls and shaming students for their beliefs.
Kissel moved on to issues in California and then to Cal Poly. FIRE rates colleges on a green, yellow and red scale. There is a color rating for the policies a school has regarding student rights and also an action rating. The action rating is what the school actually does when students’ rights are violated.
“There are no red lights at Cal Poly. They’re yellow lights,” Kissel said. “The school is better than average in terms of policies.”
Despite a mid-range policy rating, FIRE has been involved in several cases at Cal Poly, including the Hinkle case. Kissel said the case was “one of the worse we’ve seen.”
In 2002, Hinkle, then a Cal Poly student and member of the Cal Poly College Republicans, was putting up posters in the University Union (UU) promoting a black social critic the club was bringing to campus to talk about his new book. A Christian group gathering in the UU before a meeting said they found the posters offensive. An argument started and escalated until the authorities were called. Hinkle was punished by Cal Poly for “disrupting an event” and was asked to apologize to the individuals he offended.
Ultimately, Hinkle sued the university and after a year and a half the case was settled. Cal Poly paid Hinkle’s legal fees, which Kissel said were about $40,000, and dropped all charges.
The Hinkle case was FIRE’s first involvement with Cal Poly, according to Kissel. Since then there have been several rights issues on campus, including censorship of Smile and Nod posters, the disbanding of CARE-net and the crops house incident. These issues cause great concern to FIRE and were all serious violations of student rights, Kissel said.
“Cal Poly is significantly below average in terms of violations of policies regarding the first amendment,” he said.
Kissel said yellow light policies regarding student rights, like the ones at Cal Poly, can have a chilling effect on speech due to ambiguous wording. When the phrasing or language involved in a policy allows subjective interpretation, students can be unclear about what rights they might or might not have, he said. From there, administration can apply the policies as they see fit.
Laura Freberg, adviser for the College Republicans and psychology professor, said she would like to see the university improve its individual rights protection.
“Personally I would want the university to really attend to the expertise of FIRE. You don’t want to have another Steve Hinkle case. You don’t want (the university) to be on the national news as that case was,” she said. “I would want to see Cal Poly do what they need to do to get into that green light position.”