SF State News {University Communications}

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Free speech is not free reign

The following message from President Corrigan was e-mailed Nov. 1, 2004, to students, faculty and staff:

As I have said in many settings, and remind us all now, San Francisco State University is committed to providing an environment for open discourse, for the free exchange of ideas, and for practicing the skills of democracy. And democracy, as we know, must be rooted in respect for the humanity of all -– including those whose ideas we find objectionable, even abhorrent.

It is hardly surprising to see the strong feelings that have gripped our nation play out on this politically-engaged campus in the aftermath of the Presidential election. However, last week’s noisy and angry campus encounters between students of opposing political views have left me deeply disappointed with the behavior of some on both sides. Even though sensationalized reports of these events are false, some students did dishonor their cause -– and themselves –- by their verbal attacks and intensely hostile demeanor.

This is what actually occurred: On November 1, four members of the campus College Republicans staffing a table were approached by four students who began to voice their intense anger about Bush policy and the war in Iraq. Tempers flared on both sides, but the only physical exchange occurred when a College Republican attempted to slap away the hand of a student leaning over the table and pointing at him. In response, she slapped his shoulder. Campus Public Safety intervened and interviewed the two students on the spot. When asked whether they wanted to press charges against each other, both declined. However, both have now been referred to the campus discipline office for possible violation of the student code of conduct.

Were ugly and unacceptable remarks exchanged? Yes, and campus discipline provides a mechanism for dealing with that behavior. But to label this encounter, largely between eight students, an anti-Semitic "intifada" and the work of a "mob" is seriously to distort reality.

Two days later, on November 3, students who were angered by a sensationalist Internet site's portrayal of the Monday event and others who were disappointed by the outcome of the Presidential election gathered near the Student Center. That day they disrupted scheduled events and some confronted an informational table set up by the College Republicans. This noisy but non-violent confrontation, which in no way was a mob action, grew into an impromptu anti-Bush rally of 150-200 students. Public Safety maintained a clear separation between the College Republican table and the crowd. We have found no evidence that the GUPS (General Union of Palestine Students) initiated either this or the Monday event. Rather, both were outbursts between students of strong and opposing opinions.

Taunts, attempts to incite each other to anger and remarks drawing on the worst stereotypes and global fears violate the values of this campus. In many cases, they also violate the student code of conduct, as a number of students (from both sides of the argument), who have been referred for possible student discipline, have just learned. Further, exchanging charges of "racism" and "anti-Semitism" with others because of their political affiliation rather than dealing with the substance of the political differences is a dishonest dead end. If vigorous discourse moves from heated to heinous, we will use existing campus policies to restore civility. On this campus, free speech does not mean free rein.

It is time to place greater emphasis on another of the key skills of democracy –- effecting change. To take a purely practical view, hurling charges and yelling are not the way to bring about political and social reform. Those who really care about issues need to work the political system, where the battles are fought and won.

I wonder whether those who seek to antagonize, to provoke, to vent their anger rather than wrestle with issues, realize what harm they do to free speech, to a fair and open society, and to the cause of justice for all peoples. Such behavior invites -– has already invited –- the kind of calls for interference in the life of this campus that would ultimately make it an inhospitable environment for all.

I believe strongly that in our terribly troubled world, each of us has an intense, personal responsibility to seek solutions, not exacerbate problems. I hope that at the next emotional gathering on campus –- and there will be more –- all of us will find that balance between passion and decency. Our future depends on it.

-- Robert A. Corrigan, president

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