College Republican member argues with Palestinian supporter at Oct. 17 anti-terrorism rally at San Francisco State University (Photo: Golden Gate Xpress)
After months of pressure, San Francisco State University has decided not to punish College Republicans it charged with desecrating the name of Allah by stepping on makeshift Hezbollah and Hamas flags at an anti-terrorism rally.
Led by the non-profit advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the public and some media outlets had 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.”
The trouble began at an Oct. 17 anti-terrorism rally in which the students stepped on butcher paper painted to resemble the flags of the Middle East terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. The College Republicans say they simply copied the script from an image on the Internet and didn’t know it bore the name of Allah in Arabic script.
University spokeswoman Ellen Griffin, however, told San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders the university “stands behind this process” of investigating the students for possible punishment.
“I don’t believe the complaint is about the desecration of the flag,” Griffin said. “I believe that the complaint is the desecration of Allah.”
Yesterday, SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan wrote to FIRE with news that the Student Organization Hearing Panel “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.”
Prior to the decision, Lukianoff insisted the school had no basis for punishing the students.
“The College Republicans engaged in unequivocally protected political expression, and it strains all credibility to think the SFSU administration does not know this,” he said. “There is nothing to try or investigate here other than protected expression.”
Ten days after the incident, a student filed a formal complaint with the university against the campus group, alleging “attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment” and “actions of incivility.”
FIRE argued the university’s Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development could have settled the matter informally or dismissed the charges instead of pressing forward with a hearing.
The legal advocacy group sent a letter to Corrigan Jan. 23 arguing no American public institution can lawfully prosecute students for engaging in political protest or for desecrating religious symbols.
FIRE asserted “incitement” and creating a “hostile environment” are legal terms not applicable to the College Republicans’ actions of stepping on flags.
“SFSU has a duty to uphold the First Amendment rights of all of its students, even if their expressive activity offends the religious sensibilities of some,” the letter stated.
University officials wrote back Jan. 29, saying the school would continue to investigate the complaint “to give all parties the confidence that they will be heard and fairly treated by a panel that includes representatives of all the university’s key constituencies.”
A follow-up letter by FIRE urged Corrigan to call off the hearing, warning “if you continue to ignore your constitutional obligations, you risk personal liability for depriving your students of their rights.”
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