Sunday, March 09, 2008

S.F. State GOP group wins free-speech case

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle

(03-07) 14:46 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- To the relief of a campus Republican group, the 417,000 students at California State University's 23 institutions no longer face the possibility of discipline for failing to be civil to one another.

The change was part of a settlement approved by a federal magistrate in Oakland this week in a lawsuit by the San Francisco State College Republicans, whose members were subjected to a disciplinary hearing after some of them stomped on two flags bearing the name of Allah during an anti-terrorism rally in October 2006.

The flags represented the militant organizations Hamas and Hezbollah and had "Allah" written on them in Arabic. A student later complained that the College Republicans had engaged in "actions of incivility" and had tried to incite violence and create a hostile environment.

A panel of students, faculty and staff held a hearing in March 2007 and found no violations of university policy. But the College Republicans and two of their leaders filed suit four months later, challenging the speech and conduct codes that led to the disciplinary proceedings.

One line in the policy manual that applies to all 23 campuses says students are expected to be civil to one another. University officials said the manual didn't set disciplinary standards or authorize punishment for incivility, but U.S. Magistrate Wayne Brazil said the Republican group at San Francisco State had been investigated for precisely that reason.

"The First Amendment permits disrespectful and totally emotional discourse," Brazil said at a hearing in November, when he announced an injunction prohibiting the university from enforcing the civility standard in any disciplinary proceeding.

This week's settlement includes a systemwide ban on punishment for incivility, along with revisions in the standards for student conduct at San Francisco State.

One change narrows the definition of sexual harassment to apply only to "severe, pervasive and objectively offensive" actions that cause harm. The previous definition covered "unwelcome conduct which emphasizes another person's sexuality."

Also eliminated was a provision authorizing discipline for any behavior that is "inconsistent with S.F. State goals, principles and policies."

In addition, the university agreed to pay $100 each to the College Republicans and two of its leaders, and $41,500 in fees to their lawyers.

The settlement is one of a series of victories won by conservative legal groups against college speech codes.

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