The launch of an upcoming Cal Poly program aimed at reducing the number of discriminatory incidents on campus has been postponed after claims of possible free-speech violations surfaced.
CARE-Net, a campus advocacy group, was slated to start in May to allow students to report any “biased-related” incidents they encounter on campus.
The program has been in the works since January after Cal Poly President Warren Baker and Cal Poly President Robert Koob asked student affairs and academic affairs to develop the program. However, the implementation of the program was sped up following what some say were discriminatory incidents from last October when a noose and a confederate flag were displayed outside the crop house.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for individuals on college campuses nationwide, thinks the CARE-Net program is unconstitutional and impedes upon Cal Poly students’ First Amendment rights.
FIRE claimed responsibility for “pressuring” Cal Poly to not support the future of the CARE-Net program due to potential “bias” speech and said that the program was unconstitutional in a press release. FIRE claims that Cal Poly has suspended the entire program. However, no FIRE representatives could be reached by press time.
Vice Provost for Academic Programs David Conn expects CARE-Net to be launched next fall. In the interim, CARE-Net facilitators have suspended the Web site in order to make sure that the language used to describe the program properly reflects its purpose.
“The intent (of CARE-Net) is to provide additional modes of communication and dialogue for students,” Conn said. “We realized the original language could have been misleading, so we suspended the Web site in order to review the wording and make sure it is understood correctly.”
“As far as we are concerned we are still on track. The Web site is being suspended but our progress toward implementing the program has not been suspended.”
The CARE-Net team defines a biased incident as “any speech, act or harassing incident or action taken by a person or group that is perceived to be malicious or discriminatory toward another person or group based on bias or prejudice relating to such characteristics as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, age or mental or physical disability.”
According to FIRE’s press release, Cal Poly has promised that any future CARE-Net program “will not function to suppress controversial, offensive or any other kind of protected speech.”
“I don’t agree with (FIRE’s) interpretation of what CARE-NET is all about,” Conn said. “It never intended to impede on free speech rights.”
About 25 students, staff and faculty are involved with CARE-Net, including 12 campus advocates who will be available for students to report incidents to. Students will also be able to report incidents anonymously through EthicsPoint, a third party online entity.
This is not the first time Cal Poly has dealt with FIRE. In 2003, the organization led a campaign against Cal Poly’s decision to charge student and member of Cal Poly College Republicans Steve Hinkle with “disruption” for posting a flier on the Multicultural Center’s bulletin board announcing a College Republicans-sponsored speech by a black social critic.
In that case, Hinkle successfully fought Cal Poly’s disciplinary action in a federal lawsuit against Cal Poly led by FIRE and the Center for Individual Rights. Cal Poly was forced to strike the disciplinary action from Hinkles’ record, and to pay significant attorney fees in a settlement of $40,000.
— Cassandra J. Carlson contributed to this report.