SDSU pledges to curtail speech in the name of safety

San Diego State University has agreed to review its speech policies to ensure they are in “balance” with anti-harassment policies following protests over posters critical of Palestinian student groups.

The posters, which were hung as part of a campaign by the David Horowitz Center for Freedom, assert that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is “a Hamas-inspired genocidal campaign to destroy Israel, the world’s only Jewish state,” and also identify the names of students and faculty members who are associated with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

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SDSU President Elliot Hirshman released a statement in which he acknowledged that the naming of individuals “could discourage students from participating in political discussions,” but also repeatedly affirmed the university’s commitment to free expression, saying his administration encourages all community members to engage in political dialogue.

Some students found Hirshman’s response inadequate, complaining that he neither condemned the posters nor offered any sort of support to the affected individuals, and expressed their displeasure last week by surrounding his car for two hours until he agreed to address their concerns.

[RELATED: SDSU president has car blocked after supporting free expression]

KPBS reports that Hirshman met privately with members of the MSA and SJP Monday morning, emerging from the meeting with a joint statement pledging the university to a review of its speech policies.

“The parties have agreed that in collaboration with AS and under the aegis of the University Senate, they will undertake a review of university policies to ensure we are balancing freedom of expression and protection from harassment,” the statement reads. “We concluded by agreeing that in cases where racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and all forms of bigotry result, we abhor the content of such expressions, even as we recognize the protected status of these expressions. Finally, we re-affirm our commitment to supporting an environment that fosters meaningful dialogue and mutual respect.”

Compliance with those objectives, though, would require significant revisions to SDSU’s current Freedom of Expression Policy, which states that free expression “is incompatible with the suppression of opinions … encompasses forms of expression other than speech … and defends the expression we abhor as well as the expression we support.”

Moreover, the policy explicitly disavows any prohibitions on speech beyond those prescribed by law and “reasonable regulations” prohibiting expression that disrupts the school’s academic mission.

Horowitz, who is scheduled to deliver a speech on SDSU’s campus this Thursday, told The Los Angeles Times that he doesn’t understand Hirshman’s willingness to make concessions to the protesters after last week’s incident.

“I don't know why the president isn't suing those students for false imprisonment,” he mused. “They're allowed to have opinions, even if they're bad, but these aren't just students. They're activists who are part of a terrorist network. They don't commit terrorist acts, but they incite them.”

Ari Cohn, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told Campus Reform that SDSU might have some leeway to adjust its policies, but must be careful to keep them within the bounds of the Constitution, promising that FIRE would closely monitor the school’s actions.

“SDSU's statement rightly acknowledges that much speech that could be considered prejudiced or hateful is nevertheless protected by the First Amendment, and we hope that the university keeps that in mind as it navigates this and any future issues on campus,” he said. “While universities must of course address instances of discriminatory harassment, the legal bar for actionable harassment is high: the conduct must be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim's equal access to educational opportunities and benefits.

SDSU's definition of harassment, while not perfect, incorporates these elements, and any review of its policies should maintain them,” Cohn continued, saying, “based on what I have seen on the posters in question, this sort of pointed criticism would not appear to meet this high bar.

“SDSU is of course free to use its own voice to criticize speech that it feels is not in alignment with the university's views, but it must be careful not to threaten students with discipline on the basis of protected speech. The university's statement provides indication that it is cognizant of this obligation, but FIRE will be vigilant in ensuring that the First Amendment rights of the SDSU community are safeguarded.”

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