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Cal Poly Student Punished for Posting Flier
Public University Gives Veto to Students Who Claim "Offense"

July 1, 2003
by Thor L. Halvorssen

SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA -- In the spring of 2003, a student at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) was found guilty of "disruption" for posting a flier -- in a public area -- that some students found "offensive." The public university placed unequal rights above the Bill of Rights. "Allowing some individuals to veto the protected expression of others is an unconscionable betrayal of Cal Poly's moral and legal obligations," said Thor L. Halvorssen, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

On November 12, 2002, Steve Hinkle, an undergraduate and a member of the Cal Poly College Republicans (CPCR), posted fliers advertising a speech by Mason Weaver, author of "It's OK to Leave the Plantation." In that book, Weaver argues that dependence on the government puts many African-Americans in circumstances similar to slavery. Weaver's speech was sponsored by both CPCR and the student government. The flier contained merely the title of the book, a photograph of the author (who is African-American), and the time and location of the speech.

When Hinkle sought to post a flier on a public bulletin board in the Multicultural Center, several students approached him. They claimed that they were "offended" by the flier and that it was in violation of the Center's posting policy. Hinkle left to check the policy, confirming that he was indeed in compliance. While he was gone, one of the students called the university police. The officer summoned to the Center stated in writing that he was investigating a report of "a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature."

The students in the Multicultural Center admit trying to prevent Hinkle from advertising the event. Charges were brought not against these censors, however, but against Hinkle himself. On January 29, 2003, Cal Poly charged Hinkle with "disruption" of a "campus event." The students who objected to the posting of the flier claimed that they were holding a Bible study dinner and meeting at the time of the incident. The university's "finding of facts" notes that the Bible study group is not officially recognized, that the bulletin board is in a public "student lounge area," and that no notice of any kind indicated that a meeting was underway at the time.

In February, Cal Poly subjected Hinkle to a lengthy hearing. He was denied the right to have a lawyer present at the proceedings, but his faculty advisor made a transcript. At that hearing, Cornel Morton, vice president for student affairs, told Hinkle: "You are a young white male member of CPCR. To students of color, this may be a collision of experience.... The chemistry has racial implications, and you are naive not to acknowledge those."

On March 12, Vice Provost W. David Conn found Hinkle guilty. Conn ordered Hinkle to write letters of apology to the offended students. The sentencing letter from Conn stated that the text of the apology would be subject to the approval of the Office of Judicial Affairs. The letter also warned that "there is no parameter or guarantee regarding the confidentiality of the letter [of apology]" and that "this decision is final." Conn informed Hinkle that if he did not accept this punishment, he would face much stiffer penalties, up to expulsion.

Hinkle submitted his case to FIRE. On April 15, 2003, Greg Lukianoff, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, wrote to Cal Poly President Warren J. Baker, urging him to defend Steve Hinkle's fundamental constitutional rights. Lukianoff demonstrated the absurdity of a "disruption" charge against someone who was silently posting, on a public bulletin board, a flier for an approved campus event. Moreover, Lukianoff wrote, the "disrupted" students were "not a recognized student group and the 'meeting' was therefore not a 'campus function.' Ironically, Mr. Hinkle was actually posting fliers for an event that was sponsored by a recognized student group and by the student government, and it is he who has the far better claim to 'campus function' status."

Lukianoff continued: "All accounts agree that Mr. Hinkle, who only wanted to post a flier, was then approached by the students -- not the other way around." Hinkle's accusers, he noted, "themselves initiated what they later claimed was his 'disruption'....If they had allowed Mr. Hinkle to go about his constitutionally protected activity, there would have been no 'disruption' at all. All of this leads FIRE to draw the obvious conclusion: Mr. Hinkle and the CPCR are being punished for the content of their expression."

On May 9, 2003, Cal Poly's legal counsel, Carlos Cordova, responded to FIRE's letter. Cordova denied any wrongdoing and did not substantively address any of FIRE's specific concerns. Today, Steve Hinkle remains punished for trying to post a factual, simple, and constitutionally protected flier.

"I have been distracted from my studies because a handful of my fellow students want to see me punished for the content of my flier," Hinkle said. "With FIRE in my corner, I now hope that Cal Poly will be made to respect my free speech rights."

"Cal Poly grants selected students abusive control over the expression of other students," Halvorssen noted. "Disagreement, now called 'offense,' is all it takes to get Cal Poly administrators to launch an inquiry and secure a conviction on a spurious charge of 'disruption.' Cal Poly gives some people the power to veto what others have to say. Students at that institution now live in insecure possession of their most basic First Amendment rights."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation's campuses. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at Cal Poly and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.


  • Thor L. Halvorssen, CEO, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org
  • Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
  • Warren J. Baker, President, Cal Poly: (805) 756-6000; wbaker@calpoly.edu

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