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President Armstrong: Stop picking on Cal Poly students who protested military contractor

Cal Poly students protested defense contractor Raytheon during an April 19, 2018, career fair.
Cal Poly students protested defense contractor Raytheon during an April 19, 2018, career fair.

Dear President Armstrong:

We were dismayed to learn that the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities is investigating a group of Cal Poly students who conducted a peaceful demonstration to protest the presence of military contractor Raytheon at a recent Cal Poly career fair.

These students were clearly exercising their constitutionally protected free speech rights. They did not break any laws or violate any campus policies. Students at California's public universities have been protesting the presence of military contractors on their campuses since the 1960s.

Fifty years of constitutional jurisprudence has established that they are entirely within their rights to do so. Formal university investigations of peaceful student demonstrations have a serious chilling effect on student free speech. Ironically, Cal Poly has recently gone to great lengths to present itself as a champion of free speech. When a white student appeared in blackface, you characterized that as protected free speech. On two separate occasions, the university has offered maximum free speech protections to Milo Yiannopoulos, a far right ideologue who has no connection to the Cal Poly community.

Yet it now seems Cal Poly is not prepared to extend the same free speech rights to its own students. It appears that Cal Poly uses a double standard when evaluating free speech claims. This apparent double standard will likely cause serious additional damage to Cal Poly's international reputation. Since our university's reputation has already been tarnished by recent events such as the blackface incident, we cannot afford that. We urge you to mitigate the damage to Cal Poly's reputation by dropping the investigation of a peaceful, lawful student protest.

The California Faculty Association, Cal Poly SLO Executive Board, includes President Lewis Call and Past Presidents Graham Archer, Glen Thorncroft and Rich Saenz.

President Armstrong's response:

I was disappointed to read the CFA’s open letter. While I appreciate their support of student protestors, CFA erroneously makes statements as though they are facts: “… (Cal Poly students) conducted a peaceful demonstration …” and, “They did not break any laws or violate any campus policies.”

The truth is, that has not been determined. The university is working directly with the students involved, and the incident continues to be reviewed — no conclusions or determinations have been made at this point.

For CFA to make such claims — without having the facts — is irresponsible and inappropriate.

As we have stated unequivocally, the university supports free speech and freedom of expression. However, free speech rights do not include the right to disrupt university events. Protest activities that materially disrupt university events — which could include interfering with other students’ ability to engage with a potential employer — can be a violation of CAP 140, the university’s Time, Place and Manner policy.

In this case, the university received a complaint that the event was disrupted by students. As is the standard practice with complaints of this nature, it was referred to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR). OSRR anticipates their intake and review of this situation will be completed soon and will be focused on education and resolution, not sanctions or charges.

President Jeffrey D. Armstrong, Cal Poly