Five Cal Poly students who protested the relationship between the defense contractor Raytheon and the university at a fall campus career fair say school officials are trying to intimidate them from exercising their free speech rights.
Cal Poly student Kelsey Zazanis said she and four classmates of the SLO Peace Coalition peacefully demonstrated at an Oct. 4 career fair over Raytheon’s ties to the university as a donor and job recruiter, calling for the university to “divest from the war.”
Cal Poly’s Code of Conduct policies prohibit “demonstrations that would disrupt events that are not open to the general public,” said university spokesman Matt Lazier, adding he can’t comment on the specifics of the protest, citing student privacy laws.
But Zazanis said the event at the public university was “made for students, and all of us presented our Cal Poly IDs for entrance. We were not trespassing as their statement implies.”
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The students sang protest songs near Raytheon’s job recruitment tables and displayed messages taped to their shirts, expressing their view that Cal Poly shouldn’t be associated with a company that provides military weaponry, such as missiles, used in “illegal killings of innocent civilians across the world,” Zazanis said.
“Proud to be a student, though we see right through your greed, for killing all across the world for that war money,” the students chanted.
Former Raytheon executive William Swanson gave $10 million to the university’s golf program in 2015 and $100,000 to the journalism department in 2017, and the Massachusetts-based company also has donated lab equipment to Cal Poly, among other gifts.
A Raytheon social responsibility publicist didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
The students protested for about eight minutes before police escorted them from the event at the Rec Center; the group left without resistance, Zazanis said.
But the students later received letters from the university, warning them of Cal Poly’s Code of Conduct, which cites a “Time, Place, and Manner” policy in relation to demonstrations on campus.
Cal Poly’s Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities Director David Groom stated in a letter to Zazanis “you are not being charged with a violation of the Code of Conduct at this time” but “if you are involved in future situations ... you will be be referred to Student Rights & Responsibilities” for disciplinary actions.
The letter states that Zazanis has been warned twice about Cal Poly’s “Time, Manner and Place” policy, citing her involvement in a protest last year.
But Zazanis said she was “never previously warned” and, in fact, was vindicated by the university for a similar protest last April against Raytheon’s connection to the campus, also involving singing and chanting near the company’s recruitment area at a career fair.
Zazanis said the circumstances of the April protest were virtually identical.
Groom sent Zazanis a letter, shared with The Tribune, stating she was “NOT RESPONSIBLE” (in capital letters) for violating Code of Conduct rules after an investigation by Groom’s office, and Zazanis said the Cal Poly office cleared the other handful of protesters, as well.
“It makes no sense that Cal Poly would find us not responsible last year and then say we were warned about the policy,” Zazanis said. “I think they are trying to intimidate us because Raytheon is a major donor. It’s really scary that they’re bending their code. I learned from this that they aren’t held to any standard.”
Zazanis added that Cal Poly has repeatedly defended free speech rights in high-profile cases that many on campus found offensive, including an incident in April when a student wore blackface, deemed as racist by many.
The university also has cited free speech related to a “Free Speech Wall” hosted by Cal Poly Republicans on which anti-Muslim, transphobic, sexist and other messaging has been scrawled.
And the university has repeatedly cited free speech when right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos twice spoke on campus (Cal Poly and the California State University system spent a combined $86,200 to provide security at a fake news panel event in May and $55,400 in security costs for his talk in 2017), according to Tribune reports.
In response, Lazier said Cal Poly supports the free speech rights of “all of its campus community members and visitors.”
“The university enforces its policies and procedures consistently and without consideration of the potential involvement of any donors or other partners,” Lazier said.
Lazier generally referred The Tribune to the university’s Code of Conduct policy, but it’s unclear what specific language in the “Time, Manner and Place” rules triggered the warning letter to Zazanis and other protesters.
Lazier said generally that the exercise of free expression shouldn’t interfere with “university functions, imperil public safety, obstruct or damage university facilities, or cause individuals to become audiences against their will.”
Lazier added the Oct. 4 Career Fair wasn’t open to the general public, and students were required to show student identification, though Zazanis emphasized the protesters did so upon entry to the event.
“The office regularly issues letters to students — not only letters that outline sanctions in the cases of policy violations but also letters that counsel and educate students on how to avoid any possible policy violations in the future,” Lazier said. “An example would be a warning letter notifying a student that if they again engage in reported behavior that violates university policy, a possible investigation and sanctions could result.”
But Zazanis reiterated the students were found “not responsible” last spring.
“Despite their claim, Cal Poly does not enforce their policies and procedures consistently,” Zazanis said. “They have never investigated much larger disruptions of non-public events. Our Raytheon actions are the only protests that have been bothered by (Office of Students of Rights & Responsibilities).”