S.F. State GOP Group Wins Free-Speech Case

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO—To the relief of a campus Republican group, the 417,000 students at California State University’s 23 institutions no longer face the possibility of discipline for failing to be civil to one another.

The change was part of a settlement approved by a federal magistrate in Oakland this week in a lawsuit by the San Francisco State College Republicans, whose members were subjected to a disciplinary hearing after some of them stomped on two flags bearing the name of Allah during an anti-terrorism rally in October 2006.

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A panel of students, faculty and staff held a hearing in March 2007 and found no violations of university policy. But the College Republicans and two of their leaders filed suit four months later, challenging the speech and conduct codes that led to the disciplinary proceedings.

One line in the policy manual that applies to all 23 campuses says students are expected to be civil to one another. University officials said the manual didn’t set disciplinary standards or authorize punishment for incivility, but U.S. Magistrate Wayne Brazil said the Republican group at San Francisco State had been investigated for precisely that reason.

“The First Amendment permits disrespectful and totally emotional discourse,” Brazil said at a hearing in November, when he announced an injunction prohibiting the university from enforcing the civility standard in any disciplinary proceeding.

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In addition, the university agreed to pay $100 each to the College Republicans and two of its leaders, and $41,500 in fees to their lawyers.

The settlement is one of a series of victories won by conservative legal groups against college speech codes.

Most of the codes were adopted in the 1980s and 1990s, and prohibit what the schools described as hate speech—expressions that are abusive or demeaning to various racial, ethnic, sexual or religious groups. Opponents, who have often included the American Civil Liberties Union as well as religious conservatives, say the codes amount to censorship and an attempt to stifle debate.

The San Francisco case is “a great victory for free speech,” said David Hacker of the Alliance Defense Fund, a lawyer for the College Republicans.

State university students, Hacker said, “are now more free to speak on issues that matter to them.”

Although the civility standard may seem innocuous, he said, “speech codes like this are consistently enforced against Christian and conservative students across the country merely for expressing their beliefs.”

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