Cal Poly students say they face investigation, possible punishment for protesting career fair

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.

Several Cal Poly students allege that they are the victims of a university retaliation campaign in response to their participation in an April 19 on-campus protest of the participation of defense contractor Raytheon in a university career fair.

More than 500 people have signed a petition as of Thursday afternoon demanding the university drop its investigation.

Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said federal law "precludes the university from discussing any specific student conduct processes" and declined to confirm whether an investigation is ongoing.

However, two Cal Poly students told The Tribune they received an official email informing them that they are the subject of investigation by the university's Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

A protest like many others

For four years, student Mick Bruckner says he's been protesting on campus, agitating on behalf of progressive causes with groups such as Cal Poly Students for Quality Education, Cal Poly Queer Student Union, Time's Up Cal Poly and others.

So when Bruckner and a group of six other student protesters, all part of the SLO Peace Coalition, went into a career fair taking place April 19 inside the campus recreation center, he said he had no reason to believe it would be any different than any of the other dozens of protest actions he's participated in.

The group planned to protest Raytheon, which produces weapons such as the Tomahawk Cruise Missile. Raytheon has a close connection to Cal Poly: Retired Raytheon CEO William H. Swanson is chairman of the Cal Poly Foundation and has donated $10 million to the university's golf program.

"We were highlighting their participation in the bombing of Syria," Bruckner said.

Wary of running afoul of the law or university "time, place and manner" policy, Bruckner said it is his group's standard policy during protests to keep a liaison who doesn't participate directly but who can speak on the protesters' behalf with police and university officials.

On April 19, that liaison was fellow student Kelsey Zazanis. She filmed the roughly 18-minute protest, handed out fliers and spoke with both a university police officer and a career services employee.

Meanwhile, Bruckner and five other protesters sang a protest song based on Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

At the end of the 18 minutes, the protesters left, mostly without incident, Zazanis said.

Signs of trouble

Zazanis and Bruckner both said the only sign of trouble during the protest was when a career services employee briefly stepped in front of the protesters and placed her hand on Zazanis' arm on several occasions, causing Zazanis to say, "Don't touch me."

While the video of the protest doesn't show this altercation directly, Zazanis and the employee can be heard speaking in the background a little over 12 minutes into the video.

Zazanis said she attempted to file a report of the incident, but she and the protestors were denied entry to the rec center a second time.

"Then, two weeks later, I received an email from the OSRR alleging that I had violated the student codes of conduct," Bruckner said, including for carrying an "unapproved sign."

He described the email as vague on both justification for the investigation and on possible sanctions he would face should he be found in violation of school policy.

Zazanis and the other protestors later received emails saying they were also being investigated.

Public or private?

Lazier said university policy requires that "the exercise of the right of free expression does not interfere with university functions, imperil public safety, obstruct or damage university facilities or cause individuals to become audiences against their will."

To that end, the university reserves the right to maintain and enforce campus regulations "regarding the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression by individuals and groups," he said.

Lazier said the career fair was not open to the general public.

"Participating employers were required to register prior to the event. As well, only Cal Poly students and alumni were permitted to attend, and students were required to present their Cal Poly ID cards or sign in with a valid Cal Poly email address upon entry," Lazier said.

Cal Poly students marched across campus in one of multiple planned Open House protests over the administration's perceived lack of action on Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, after photos surfaced of a member in blackface and others as racial stereotypes.

But Bruckner, Zazanis and the others are Cal Poly students. Zazanis said they did present their student IDs at the door.

"We weren't pretending to be anything we weren't," she said.

Neither Zazanis nor Bruckner said they were informed by either police or campus staff that they were not allowed on the premises at the time they entered and sat down in front of the Raytheon booth.

"Because we are students, it is open to us. The career fair is for us," she said. "It's our event, so it makes sense that we're there."

Bruckner called Cal Poly's action retaliation because his group chose to protest a major Cal Poly donor. He said his group scrupulously avoided violating the rules.

"If we wanted to break the university code of conduct, we would have," he said. "We think it's egregious, and we're definitely scared."

Bruckner said he is set to graduate, and now he doesn't know if he'll be able to. Zazanis, who has another year of school to go, said she is worried for how her final year of school will go.

"And a situation like this makes me question why I'm still here. And it makes me frustrated because I know I'm graduating from here. I don't have a way out so I have to deal with situations like this," she said. "It's frustrating because I know that even if we come out of this unscathed, this just shows how they respond to student dissent."

First investigation

Bruckner and Zazanis said in their years of protesting on campus, this is the first time they've been investigated.

Lazier said the reason other, larger protests — such as the massive, multi-day protest during Cal Poly's annual open house — were not investigated was those protests "happened in open, public areas of campus."

Lazier said "someone who chooses to stage a materially disruptive protest causing health or safety issues during such a non-public event could face potential criminal charges if they refused to discontinue their disruption."

However, Lazier said, "there were no arrests and no criminal charges submitted to the district attorney's office" for the April 19 protest.

"As well, if an employee or student engaged in disruption of a non-public event, the university would review the activity to determine whether it violated a university policy," he said.

Lazier said if a violation of university policy was found to have occurred, the employee or student "could face appropriate disciplinary action."

He referred all further questions about the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities and its processes to the office's website.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler
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