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State University Considering Discipline of Students for Walking on the Word "Allah":

The calls for suppression of speech that offends religion (see here and here) don't seem to be limited to purely academic arguments. Here's an e-mail from the San Francisco State University to the College Republicans:

I am writing to you as President of the College Republicans to follow-up with you regarding the letter of complaint that was received by the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development on Thursday, October 26, 2006, notifying the office of alleged violations of University policy. The complaint is in regards to alleged actions at a College Republican sponsored event, "Anti Terrorism Rally," that occurred in Malcolm X Plaza from 12-2 PM on October 17, 2006. The complaint describes alleged actions of walking on a banner with the word "Allah" written in Arabic script. I am writing to inform you that the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development has concluded its investigation into the events that occurred on October, 17, 2006 in Malcolm X Plaza. The investigation was put in place to review the following alleged violations of University Policy as were addressed in the written complaint:
1. Allegations of attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment
2. Allegations of actions of incivility (Standards for Student Conduct Title V, 41301)

Resources presented by interviewees during interview process for review include: 1. Standards for Student Conduct Title V, 41301
2. CUSP II Strategic Plan
3. California penal code

The Investigative report has been forwarded to the Student Organization Hearing Panel for review. The chair of SOHP ... is your contact person should you have specific questions regarding this review.... (I have cc her on this message). She will also be in contact with you regarding any questions and specifics regarding the review. You may continue to contact me regarding any general questions regarding the SOHP process. You can find the process online at http://www.sfsu.edu/~ospld/conduct/hearing_panel.htm. For a copy of the Code of Conduct, please see http://www.sfsu.edu/~ospld/conduct/policies.htm. I have also attached a word copy of these documents, to this email for your convenience. To review CUSP II, please see http://academic.sfsu.edu/apee/planning/plan05-10.php.

Please keep in mind Carl that you as a student organization have the right to have a representative at any stage of possible disciplinary proceedings. However, attorneys are not permitted as representatives in this process.

Sincerely,
... Director
Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development
Student Services Building, Suite 105
San Francisco State University

FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has more:

The College Republicans "offense" took place on October 17, 2006, when they held an anti-terrorism protest in SFSU's Malcolm X Plaza. During the protest, several members of the group stepped on butcher paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contain the word "Allah" written in Arabic script.
As FIRE points out, burning the American flag, and stepping on it, "is without question a constitutionally protected act of political protest"; stepping on flags of Hamas and Hezbollah, even when they contain religious symbols on them — or for that matter deliberately stepping on religious symbols — is equally protected.

Note also that the university is not simply trying to prevent violence here (which it in any event should do by preventing and punishing the violent responses to offensive student speech, not by punishing the speech itself, at least unless it fits within the narrow category of individually addressed insulting "fighting words," which doesn't apply here). The university is expressly investigating (with the threat of formal sanctions behind the investigation) the possibility that the students' speech is ideologically offensive — creates a "hostile environment" and is "incivil[]." A clear First Amendment violation, it seems to me.

UPDATE: Here's a story about the rally in the campus newspaper.

JohnAnnArbor (www):
Typical. Some protests are more equal than others.
2.8.2007 12:31pm
Alan Gura:
Does this mean that students at SFSU may not desecrate Israeli and British flags, which also contain religious symbols?
2.8.2007 12:40pm
JoshL (mail):

Please keep in mind Carl that you as a student organization have the right to have a representative at any stage of possible disciplinary proceedings. However, attorneys are not permitted as representatives in this process.


Is that legal?
2.8.2007 12:41pm
Steve:
The complaint's attempt to spin the actions in question seems really bad to me. We have two versions of the story:

1) The complaint addresses "alleged actions of walking on a banner with the word 'Allah' written in Arabic script."

2) FIRE explains: "During the protest, several members of the group stepped on butcher paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contain the word "Allah" written in Arabic script."

The complaint, in other words, tries to make this out to be a blatant case of religious desecration and blasphemy, when the reality seems to be that students were trampling on the flags of two terrorist organizations that happen to incorporate the name of Allah into their flag design.

If anyone is guilty of incitement here, it seems to me that it would be the dishonest complainants. Unless there's some evidence that the students were actually trying to deface the Islamic religion, it's clearly inflammatory to suggest what they were. Of course, such conduct would still likely be protected free speech, but that's not the point. The more important point is the apparently fictional and inflammatory nature of the accusations.
2.8.2007 12:42pm
SDProsecutor:
The irony of alleged "hate speech" occurring in Malcolm X Plaza is palpable.
2.8.2007 12:47pm
Sean M.:
It's charges like these that make college disciplinary boards (which really do try to be fair to everyone - I sit as a hearing officer and occasional panel chair at my college) into laughingstocks.
2.8.2007 12:50pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
If people don't want their religious symbols trampled upon, they shouldn't put them on the flags of their political/terrorist organizations. Even if we accord some special reverence to religious symbols, which I don't, the freedom to engage in political debate trumps any protection we might give to religious symbols.

That SFSU should even consider this complaint seriously is appalling.
2.8.2007 12:51pm
Steve:
If people don't want their religious symbols trampled upon, they shouldn't put them on the flags of their political/terrorist organizations.

To be fair, I'm not sure there was a referendum in the Muslim world on the subject.
2.8.2007 12:57pm
DaveN (mail):
Cross burning is protected "speech." I find it reprehensible and the views of the Klansmen burning it abhorrent. I felt the same about the "artistic" expression of "Piss Christ."

In both examples, however, there is clearly a First Amendment right to the conduct as long as they are not "fighting words." Equally protected is the burning of the American flag.

Thus, whether the College Republicans knew that there was Arabic script containing the word "Allah" or not is beside the point. Their "speech" is protected.

I am no ACLU absolutist, but I agree the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that others might disagree with. SFSU (as a public institution) needs to remember that students do not give up their First Amendment rights when they enter the campus gages.
2.8.2007 12:58pm
DaveN (mail):
"gates" not "gages". Failed to proof before posting. My apologies.
2.8.2007 1:01pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
-- To be fair, I'm not sure there was a referendum in the Muslim world on the subject.--

...or any other subject, or an election (not involving terrorists/rigging).
2.8.2007 2:01pm
Waldensian (mail):
I love the idea that it can be unlawful, violative of college regulations, etc. to "create a hostile environment." That's an employment law term that has now grown waaaaay bigger than its britches.

I may have a statutory right to a workplace free of a (certain narrowly defined type of) "hostile environment," but when did it become the law, or an appropriate goal of college regulations, that I have to be able to LIVE MY LIFE free of a "general" hostile environment?

The concept is laughably meaningless. If I'm a Klansman, and walk around SFSU in my Klan outfit, and people spit on me, are we -- spitter and spittee -- BOTH guilty of creating a hostile environment?
2.8.2007 2:02pm
MS (mail):
JoshL,

I had the same reaction. I don't know much about the law or facts here, but a Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches at any critical stage of a prosecution. And the email references the California penal code.
2.8.2007 2:48pm
Alan P (mail):
I do not believe that any discipline action is appropriate but as an aside, does it strike anyone as inappropriate for the matter to be considered by the student board as opposed to actual grown ups in the college administration.

I have problems generally with student disciple boards violating any notion of due process. Prohibiting legal representation is just the beginning of the problem.
2.8.2007 3:13pm
wooga:
All the 'hostile environment' speech codes ignore well established law: there is no heckler's veto.

Burning an American flag at a veteran's rally will certainly "incite violence and create a hostile environment" and is an act of "incivility." But that's protected speech. Of course, everyone on this site knows this, but apparently the university's counsel is oblivious.
2.8.2007 3:55pm
Carolina:
Any quasi-judicial process that allows people to be "represented" by anyone except an attorney strikes me as highly questionable.
2.8.2007 3:56pm
Spitzer:
Perhaps the university is acting pragmatically here, not unlike much of the US media's reaction to the Danish cartoon controversy: one could argue that offended members of Hamas or other radical militant or terrorist groups are more likely to overreact than those merely offended by the burning of US flags. If this were the case, perhaps the university could be explained for obviously attempting to violate the constitution by its simple cowardice?
2.8.2007 4:07pm
Insomniac:

Alan P (mail):
I do not believe that any discipline action is appropriate but as an aside, does it strike anyone as inappropriate for the matter to be considered by the student board as opposed to actual grown ups in the college administration.


What makes you think there are any actual grownups in SFSU's administration?
2.8.2007 4:16pm
rc:
Don't you guys see the opportunity?

Make Allah-print uniforms standard issue for the troops, and no islamic terrorist can attack them!1!!
2.8.2007 4:27pm
MS (mail):
rc,

A terrorist cannot attack troops by definition.
2.8.2007 4:33pm
rc:
It's strange that these groups do not object to putting 'Allah' on the flag of a terrorist organization... but stomping on the flag of a terrorist oganization is considered an insult to ALL Muslims.
2.8.2007 4:34pm
Hans Bader (mail):
This censorship is just an extension of Judge Reinhardt's perverse reasoning in his ruling for the Ninth Circuit in Harper v. Poway, which upheld the ban on an offensive T-shirt.

In the Harper v. Poway case, he said that speech that offends is generally protected (such as denunciations of George Bush), but speech suddely ceases to be protected if it offends minority groups like gays, racial minorities, or Muslims, in which it is treated as an injurious assault on the minority group's self-esteem.

Of course, Reinhardt, without explanation, limited the holding in Harper v. Poway to the K-12 school context, so what the university is still likely violating the First Amendment, even under current Ninth Circuit precedent, if it attempts to discipline the speakers.

But the school investigators are just extending his perverse reasoning a little further than he (or the Ninth Circuit) is willing to take it.

One more reason to overturn Reinhardt's ruling in the Harper v. Poway case.
2.8.2007 4:34pm
rc:
MS- "A terrorist cannot attack troops by definition."

Ok, allow me to revise my statement. Make Allah-print uniforms standard issue for the troops, and no islamic nutball can attack them!1!!
2.8.2007 4:36pm
s806:
I'm glad they were in a designated free speech zone. I know my undergraduate institution would arrest people for such actions outside the zones.
2.8.2007 4:45pm
Darkmage (mail):
Guys, I think we're making a mountain out of a molehill here. My understanding of the quoted document is that the University has received a written complaint under two regulations that apply to campus activities and the university has completed its investigation into the allegations. Now that the investigation is complete, they have moved to the next step in the process and forwarded the report on to the committee.

So what's the problem? They received two complaints, investigated and forwarded the results of the investigation to the panel for review. I would expect any university to have a similar process that investigates complaints. We may think that the complaints are silly and merely attempts to stifle the CR activities by playing the victim... but is that really the job of the investigators?

If the student panel comes back with disciplinary action against the CR, then I think we've got a serious problem. But for right now... it's bureaucracy at work.
2.8.2007 4:52pm
Yankev (mail):
This is the same university that refused to take any action a few years agon when a violent mob surrounded Jewish students at a Hillel-sponsored peace rally, chanted pro-Nazi and anti-Sirael statements,threatened the students with immediate physical violence, and called for the death of all Jews in general. When the police finally arrivedm the Hillel students were forced by the police to disband and the mob was not molested in any way. As observed above, some protests are indeed more equal than others.
2.8.2007 5:01pm
wooga:
Darkmage, my understanding is that the university did not need to forward the issue to the student panel. Upon completing the investigation, the claim should have been dropped as not actionable. However, forwarding the matter to the student panel continues to keep the sword above the CR head, will result in more stress and threats to the CR, and will almost certainly result in the student panel leveling some sort of 'conviction' against the CR (students who volunteer, or worse run, for these sorts of panels tend to very hostile to CR types). Even if the student panel is overruled, all this will still act as a very strong chill on any future speech by the CR.
2.8.2007 5:08pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Hmmm.
Would I create a hostile environment by showing up at UCLA in a USC sweatshirt (or vice versa - or insert your choice of 2 rival schools)? How about wearing the rival's sweatshirt and singing their fight song?

What if an art student dropped a Koran into a jar of urine and called it P*** Koran?

Nick
2.8.2007 6:24pm
CM the Patriarch:
Loneliest people in the world — college Republicans at San Franciso State!
2.8.2007 7:05pm
festus:
I think the problem with the College Administrators, as a sweeping generalization, is that they do actually believe that some speech is more equal than other speech. In that sense they do have a clear agenda. They would never have reacted the same to an American, Israeli, South African (during apartheid), or probably a host of other flags being burned or desecrated. If they wanted to hold a sensitivity session, bless their bs. However, they need to be held to the standards of the Constition.
2.8.2007 8:24pm
The River Temoc (mail):
...or any other subject, or an election (not involving terrorists/rigging).

This comment is factually incorrect, and you should withdraw it.
2.8.2007 9:08pm
eeyn524:
wooga, you might know more about SFSU's internal policies for handling complaints than I do. But where I work (at a state university in a very conservative state) even obviously meritless complaints get lots and lots of process. I'm doing an "investigation" right now on a student complaint that was forwarded to me from another office, and after I'm finished it has to be forwarded to yet another level regardless of what I find. So maybe Darkmage has a point.
2.8.2007 9:17pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Can any of the professors on this blog tell us why so many of their fellows appear to lack common sense? Is it resaonable to think there is a higher percentage of boneheads among the permanent university academic employees than among the general population? This is the impression I get from following the news. Maybe I'm wrong. I'd like to hear from someone on the inside.
2.8.2007 9:28pm
eeyn524:
Elliot123 - you probably wanted to hear from one the actual VC members, but I'll take a shot at it:

(1)Yes, there probably is a higher percentage of boneheads, but not as dramatically higher as it appears from the outside.

(2) One reason for the higher percentage is the hiring process, which strongly favors strength in a narrow discipline. Narrow people tend to lack common sense.

(3) Decisions tend to get made by committees. Even when non-boneheads are involved this can lead to problems.

(4) Since we go around claiming to be smart guys, it's especially fun when we do something stupid, so it tends to get more news. This exaggerates the effect.

(5) You single out the permanent guys - I assure you the part timers and temps are equally bad.
2.8.2007 10:23pm
mrsizer (www):
Interesting test case: Have another rally (freedom from religion should be popular at SF) with the following written in chalk on the sidewalk
1. Allah in Arabic
2. Yewah in Hebrew
3. Jesus in Aramaic
4. Agnostic in Esperanto
5. Atheist in Russian
6. Fu Lang Gu (sp?) in Chinese
7. Buddist in Tibetan
etc...
Just be sure nothing is in English.

See if you get in trouble for making people walk over it (and note who complains).
2.8.2007 11:38pm
gasman (mail):
"Step on a crack and break your mother's back" goes a rhyme I recall from my early childhood. So now we must literally watch our step because the same behavior has now been formally codified in law.
Perhaps it is not the act of stepping on the word which is defamatory, but the act of putting the damn word in a place where it is likely to be stepped upon.
2.9.2007 8:13am
SMSgt Mac (mail) (www):
Well, all the really good points have been taken, but I have to ask how anyone got past the first part of the first sentence in the letter without wondering if it was written by a functional illiterate.

"I am writing to you as President of the College Republicans..."

They must not teach that whole 'object-verb clarity' thing at SFSU.
2.9.2007 10:05am
ed o:
far left wingers and islamic radicals-strange how they tend to flock together. is it a hatred of this country that unites them or simple boneheadedness. I opt for the former given the folks that the left aligns itself with-they would rather ally with folks who, if in power, would lead them to the gallows than be seen as showing any respect or love for this country.
2.9.2007 11:13am
Steve Reuland (www):
I think it would help if people would follow the url provided in the email (this one: http://www.sfsu.edu/~ospld/conduct/hearing_panel.htm) before jumping to conclusions. Doing so would tell you that:

1. Any student group can file a complaint for whatever reason.

2. The OSPLD is required to investigate all complaints.

3. If an agreement between the complainer and complainee (is that a word?) is not reached before hand, then the case automatically goes before the SOHP to be adjudicated.

Up to this point, the university has done nothing wrong. The people who lodged the complaint are the ones to blame. Maybe the university should amend its process in order to keep frivolous complaints from being adjudicated, but that's not the policy as it stands now.

My guess is that the complaint will be dismissed because the College Republicans, in spite of acting like jerks, haven't violated any policies. You can read the policies by checking out that other url contained in the email, and you'll see that there are no "hate speech codes" or other policies designed to restrict unpopular speech. That too would be a helpful thing to do before jumping to conclusions.

Sheesh.
2.9.2007 3:34pm
Steve Reuland (www):
Concerning the inability to bring an attorney to the hearing, someone writes:
Is that legal?

Yes, of course it's legal. These kinds of hearings are not courts of law and are incapable of imposing criminal or civil sanctions. The worst they can do is revoke the group's campus recognition, which would mean that the College Republicans would be reduced to acting like jerks as individuals rather than as a recognized student group.
2.9.2007 3:46pm