Magistrate bars Cal State from enforcing portions of conduct code

CALIFORNIA — A federal magistrate said he will temporarily barSan Francisco State University and the 22 other California State Universitysystem campuses from enforcing certain provisions of the student conduct codethat he ruled could be used to punish students for Constitutionally protectedspeech.

The policies were challenged in a lawsuit by the College Republicans of SanFrancisco State. Members of the group were investigated for inciting violence,creating a hostile environment and engaging in “actions ofincivility” stemming from an incident in which members stepped on Hamasand Hezbollah flags during an anti-terrorism rally. The allegations againstthe group were found to have no merit and the group members allege that thefive-month* investigation, which was prompted by a student complaint, chilledtheir speech.

“The school essentially knew from the beginning that theycouldn’t actually punish us for what we did,” said Leigh Wolf, thecurrent president of the organization. “What they did instead is make thisinvestigation as long and as inconveniencing as possible.”

In an Oct. 31 hearing, Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil of the U.S. DistrictCourt for the Northern District of California said he would issue a preliminaryinjunction that would bar San Francisco State from enforcing a policythat requires that students act consistently with the university’s”goals, principles and policies.” The injunction, which had not yetbeen officially issued as of Thursday afternoon, will also bar the CaliforniaState University system from enforcing a policy that requires students “tobe civil to one another” and will limit the enforcement of thesystem’s intimidation and harassment policies to behavior that threatensthe health or safety of another person.

Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whichassisted the College Republicans in their suit, said the challenged provisionscould have threatened publications.

“The students were charged with harassment for engaging in expressionthat offended other students,” she said. “If that was theuniversity’s standard for enforcement, then that certainly could be usedagainst publications.”

Harris added that harassment provisions in student conduct codes atuniversities elsewhere have been used to censor publications.

Ellen Griffin, a spokeswoman for San Francisco State University, said shecould not comment on the length of the investigation or on other issues relatedto the lawsuit. But she said the preliminary injunction would not change theway the university enforced its policies.

“The judge ordered the university to refrain from enforcing the word’civil’ in a way that would interfere with a student’s FirstAmendment rights and that interpretation is consistent with theuniversity’s,” she said. “We view the preliminary injunctionas consistent with our normal practices.”

Griffin emphasized that the university did not punish or charge the membersof the College Republicans and that it merely responded to a complaint lodged byanother student against the organization.

“That complaint was investigated and found to have no merit,”she said. “Students were not disciplined for civility or lack ofcivility.”

But Wolf said though he and other College Republican members were notformally punished, the lengthy investigation was “a nice little slap onthe wrist.”

“Even though they didn’t actually throw us off campus, theinvestigation took six months and took hours and hours out of our schooltime,” he said. “We lost three-quarters of our members … nobodywanted to deal with it.”

CORRECTION, March 4: This article originally misstated the length of San Francisco State’s investigation of the College Republicans. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story.