Hate speech is protected at Cal Poly. Anti-war singing, not so much

Watch Cal Poly students protest against Raytheon

Watch five Cal Poly students protest against Raytheon at a Campus Career fair. Raytheon, a university donor, produces military weaponry.
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Watch five Cal Poly students protest against Raytheon at a Campus Career fair. Raytheon, a university donor, produces military weaponry.

Cal Poly is a stickler for protecting free speech — as long as the speaker is a right-wing provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos, or a white student who wears blackface to a frat party.

As Cal Poly lawyers often point out, the university doesn’t have much choice in the matter; even hate speech is protected speech.

Yet when five students sing an anti-war song to protest a defense contractor at a career fair, Cal Poly goes ballistic.

As reported by Tribune writer Nick Wilson, the university sent warning letters to students who engaged in the low-key protest on Oct. 4 that targeted Raytheon, which has close ties to Cal Poly.

The students wore signs taped to their clothing — “Raytheon runs Cal Poly” was one — and stood in front of the Raytheon recruiters’ table, singing a protest song.

When Cal Poly police arrived, they left peacefully. The whole thing lasted eight minutes.

That was it. As student protests go, this has got to be one of the chillest on record; at most, it may have been a minor inconvenience to some in attendance.

Yet in a warning letter sent to students, Cal Poly makes it sound far more disruptive.

“It was reported that you entered the Career Fair with a sign (a notice prohibiting signs from the event was posted at the entrance) and then stood in front of the Raytheon table with your sign, singing and blocking access to the table,” states a letter from David Groom, associate dean of students.

(Kelsey Zazanis, one of the student protesters, shared the letter with The Tribune.)

The letter goes on to say that no charges are being pursued this time but if it happens again, watch out.

“If you are involved in additional situations that could be violations of the Code of Conduct, you will be referred to Student Rights & Responsibilities for disciplinary action.”

No word on what that “disciplinary action” might be.

This isn’t the first time Cal Poly has overreacted to a Raytheon protest. The October action was similar to a protest held April 19, which led to a formal investigation by the university’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

In that instance, six students carrying a banner appeared before the Raytheon table and — does this sound familiar? — sang a protest song; the action lasted less than 20 minutes.

Cal Poly was heavily criticized for investigating the students; the university’s Faculty Association wrote an open letter to President Jeffrey Armstrong warning that such investigations can have a chilling effect on free speech.

The university concluded there was insufficient evidence of student wrongdoing.

Zazanis, who participated in both the April and October protests, received a letter telling her she was found “NOT RESPONSIBLE” for violating the student Code of Conduct.

So what gives, Cal Poly? By picking on students who were already absolved once, you look ridiculous.

Plus, you leave yourself open to allegations that you’re stifling free speech and pandering to a major donor. (The retired chairman of Raytheon has given generous donations to Cal Poly, including $10 million to the golf program.)

We don’t believe that’s the case, but the optics are awful.

So again, why the heavy-handed treatment of a few students who want to make a statement, in the place where it will have the most impact?

Don’t hide behind legalese about this being a private, rather than public, event, or your vague “Time, Place and Manner” policy that apparently allows you to dictate when and where protests can occur.

Shackling free speech may be necessary in some circumstances — to quell a riot, for example — but this was no disruption requiring heavy-handed intervention.

Disruption is what we saw when Milo Yiannopoulos visited the campus, forcing the university to spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on security.

Five students singing at a career fair isn’t a disruption; it’s a respectful exercise of free speech.

The last time we checked, that’s still allowed in the United States of America.