Blackface is free speech, so student likely won't be expelled, Cal Poly president says

"It's sad and it makes me angry that this thing happened," said Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, seen here in 2016, about the racist incident at Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.
"It's sad and it makes me angry that this thing happened," said Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, seen here in 2016, about the racist incident at Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

In response to national outrage over racist photos from a Lambda Chi Alpha party this weekend, Cal Poly President Jeffery Armstrong said he personally felt the photos were repulsive and atrocious, but cautioned that the university has a process and must protect free speech, meaning discipline will not necessarily be swift — or even occur at all.

Armstrong told The Tribune on Thursday that though the university is conducting a review of the students involved, because of free speech rights, the student pictured in blackface would likely not face expulsion.

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Cal Poly students gathered for an emergency town hall meeting in San Luis Obispo on Monday, April 9, 2018, to speak out against racism after a fraternity posted racially insensitive photos of members in blackface and gang costumes online.

"That's very, very likely protected by free speech, and freedom of expression," he said. "If a student walks around on campus with their face painted black, they can do that.

"Based on the facts we have, what we know now, we would not expel that student," he said.

The student has resigned from the fraternity, according to a national representative Thursday.

Armstrong also said while the fraternity's national headquarters is conducting its own review, the administration will likely not make a decision to disband or revoke its affiliation with the local chapter.

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Members of Lambda Chi Alpha are shown dressing as gangster stereotypes and throwing gang signs in front of their fraternity house. The photo was taken Saturday and the Instagram account it's from has been deleted. Instagram

"Will they return? I don't know," he said. "Maybe it's a totally new Lambda Chi that comes back. I don't know. But they are not guaranteed to come back. We still have the ability to say, 'No matter what you do, you aren't coming back.' But I don't think it's wise for us to do that right now."

To address the concerns, Armstrong is hosting an open forum Thursday at 6:30 p.m. on campus in Harman Hall — and he knows some will be angry at what he has to say.

"Personally, I think it's awful what they did," he said. "But I also can't put my personal feelings on top of an individual's constitutional right. When I say that, I know that makes people mad. When I say it, and I say it tonight, it's going to make them mad. But if I don't say it, I'm not doing my job."

Pictures of a blackface-wearing Lambda Chi Alpha student — identified by Mustang News as Kyler Watkins — emerged on social media Sunday, followed by another picture of other fraternity members apparently at the same party throwing gang signs and dressed as gang stereotypes.

The group photo was captioned, "She want a gangster not a pretty boy."

Outrage over the photos quickly exploded on campus, with hundreds packing an emergency town hall Monday night, others protesting in front of the fraternity house and at a meeting of the college's Interfraternity Council.

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A photograph posted to Facebook on Saturday shows two brothers from Cal Poly's Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, one of whom is in blackface. Facebook Monique Chenault-Hakker

Many demanded immediate expulsion of the student and disbanding of the Lambda Alpha Chi chapter.

The Interfraternity Council voted Thursday to place all local fraternity chapters on probation indefinitely in response to the outrage.

"We want to acknowledge our role in contributing to an environment that perpetuates racism, and are making a commitment from this day forward to hold our community more responsible and hold them accountable to the values we strive to live by," read a statement released Thursday by the Interfraternity Council, which governs Cal Poly's fraternities.

The scandal has since also garnered national attention, with large media outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek each reporting on the pictures.

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This puts Cal Poly, which in recent years has worked to improve the diversity at the predominately white university, in a difficult place.

"It's sad and it makes me angry that this thing happened," he said. "Most of all because it hurt our students. But then it also just throws a sabotage — almost — into what we are doing. But we are not going to let it sabotage what we are doing. I'm determined to make sure that that does not define Cal Poly."

Some have said the latest incident highlights an ongoing racism issue at the school, citing past racially charged scandals like the infamous "Colonial Bros and Nava-hos" party in 2013 and the Crops House incident, in which a confederate flag and noose were displayed on campus in 2008.

Others have said they felt, given the latest incident, that they couldn't recommend students of color attend the school.

Armstrong said there was "no question" that some potential students have seen the recent events and decided to not accept Cal Poly's offer of admission.

And he denied racism was an endemic problem at the university.

"I don't believe we have a culture that is racist," he said. "I believe we have had some incidents that are awful and we are working very hard to get at the root cause and help people understand."

He said the school has taken steps in recent years to help improve the culture at Cal Poly, including creating an Office of University Diversity and Inclusion, hiring staff whose positions are targeted at improving diversity, adding cultural programs to the annual Week of Welcome student orientation, adding more space for cultural organizations on campus, establishing faculty and student diversity committees at the individual colleges and, most recently, proposing the Cal Poly Opportunity Grant, which would provide financial aid to low-income students to cover fees. (That plan was originally expected to be launched this fall, but has since been put on a temporary hold while the university reviews comments on it.)

The school is also looking into ways to better govern the Greek system, with the possibility of having all Greek organizations housed on campus in the next five to eight years. They will also launch a Greek chapter review process that gives chapters an in-depth look at the overall health of the organization, and provides recommendations for improvement.

Moving forward, Armstrong said he hopes the community will be able to grow from the incident and use it as a springboard to improving the campus culture.

"We're going to use this awful incident as an opportunity to ratchet up even more our two-pronged approach: rules and regulation and hearts and minds," he said. "I want them to know I recognize their pain and anger, and I support them for being angry, but I want them to channel it in the right ways."

Correction: A previous version of this story game the incorrect fraternity name. It's Lambda Chi Alpha.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928; @kaytyleslie