Cal Poly students protest ‘hurtful’ remarks on Republican club’s ‘Free Speech Wall’

Cal Poly students march in protest at the University Union Plaza on Thursday in reaction to derogatory comments targeting Muslim and transgender people on a “Free Speech Wall” erected by the campus Republican club.
Cal Poly students march in protest at the University Union Plaza on Thursday in reaction to derogatory comments targeting Muslim and transgender people on a “Free Speech Wall” erected by the campus Republican club. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Anti-Islamic and anti-transgender comments written on a “Free Speech Wall” erected by the Cal Poly College Republicans this week have sparked two consecutive days of protests on campus.

The Republican club put up the “Free Speech Wall” display on Dexter Lawn on Tuesday for open commenting.

Club president Paul Sullivan said he didn’t agree with the controversial messages. “We don’t condone it but respect their right to say it, even though it’s crazy,” he said.

The group coordinates the display annually to commemorate the Berlin Wall coming down. The 26th anniversary of the historic event took place on Monday. While dozens of the scrawled comments support tolerance and respect for minority groups and all religions, two expressed anti-Islamic views and one had anti-queer sentiments.

Protesters gathered Wednesday night and Thursday at midday to speak out against what they called hate speech.

One anonymous post reads, “Islam has no place in free Western World.” Another depicts a cartoon-like Islamic figure firing a weapon, quoting him saying “Don’t draw me. I’ll jihad your face. Allahu Akbar (Arabic for ‘God is great’).” A third, with blank checklist boxes for “male” and “female,” says “pick one and one only.”

The controversial messages have been crossed out with pen or edited, including the revised “Islam has a place in free Western World” with the original “no” crossed out.

Sullivan said the wall, which is open to anyone on campus, will remain up through Friday.

“These comments are toxic to the people affected,” said Matt Klepfer, president of the Queer Student Union, who helped organize Thursday’s protest with students from the other campus groups. “We’re encouraging people not to be silent about expressing their feelings.”

Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly’s vice president of student affairs, called the notes and drawings “hurtful and mean-spirited toward members of the Cal Poly community.”

“I stood with our students last night at the event and shared in the pain that these students feel when words are used to hurt,” Humphrey said. “While these words are protected speech under the First Amendment, we need to stand together as a community that cares about each other.”

Humphrey said Cal Poly will abide by its free speech policy and not issue any consequences to individuals or groups associated with the comments and drawings. The university hasn’t contacted the College Republicans, citing free speech policy.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the nonprofit Free Speech Coalition in San Rafael, said hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

“As appalling and regrettable as the comments may be, they are fully protected by the U.S. Constitution,” Sheer said. “Under our Constitution, the way to address speech considered hateful is with more speech (of alternate views). What’s happening at this campus is exactly what was contemplated by the First Amendment.”

The plywood display stands about six feet high and five feet wide with white poster paper taped to its base. Positioned near a busy footpath in the campus core, it had about 100 comments Thursday. Some supported presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Rand Paul. Others expressed inclusive messages such as, “Let’s prove that love is a Western value” and “Trans is beautiful.”

A student group called SLO Solidarity protested Wednesday night, drawing about 130 people. A group of about 50 rallied again Thursday at the University Union, chanting “love not hate.”

The SLO Solidarity group, an informal assembly of multiple minority clubs on campus, including the Queer Student Union, Black Student Union and the feminist group Triota, is seeking to push Cal Poly’s administration to create a more tolerant campus in the wake of the incident.

The protesters are calling for an online bias incident reporting program that could hold groups accountable for incidents of prejudice, possibly withholding funding for a club or placing it on social probation. An in-person reporting system for incidents of discrimination already is in place on campus. University sanctions may be levied against those who violate policy.

The groups also are pushing for increased funding and support for minority-related academic curriculum, such as a new queer studies program, as well as gender and ethnic studies curricula.

The “Free Speech Wall” comments come in the wake of past controversial incidents at Cal Poly in recent years.

In 2013, an off-campus fraternity hosted a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” theme party, encouraging men to wear Colonial-era costumes, while women wore sexually explicit Native American-themed attire. The incident garnered national media attention, including mention in the Huffington Post and criticism from the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

In 2008, a group of agriculture students living in a university-owned home displayed a noose and Confederate flag and were alleged to have posted an anti-gay sign, leading to university meetings and forums to address the campus culture.

Ilianna Salas, a Cal Poly journalism student, said Thursday the controversy surrounding the “Free Speech Wall” has been widely shared on social media by Cal Poly students.

“I haven’t personally experienced any insensitive comments here at Cal Poly, but it’s sad this exists,” Salas said of the messages. “In some ways, I think people are saying these things just to try to be funny. They see it as a joke.”