Free Speech on Campus graphic

Student demonstration at career fair prompts university investigation – April 19, 2018

San Luis Obispo, CA

During a career fair at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo (SLO) on April 19, 2018, seven students from the SLO Peace Coalition protested for 18 minutes in front of a table for the defense contractor Raytheon. Two weeks later, several of the students who participated in the demonstration received emails from Cal Poly’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, informing them they were under investigation by the university to determine whether they had disrupted the career fair. The case was dismissed two months later.

Key Players

SLO Peace Coalition (SLOPC) is a student organization at Cal Poly that urges university administration to divest from the “war economy,” which would include cutting ties with fossil fuel companies and weapons manufacturers. Its first meeting as a club was on November 10, 2017. According to its Facebook page, the SLOPC demands five actions from the university: stop making new investments in weapon producers and fossil fuel companies; divest sponsored lab spaces tied to them within two years; invest in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and other “clean” solutions; support students interested in careers outside the defense sector; and implement a “Socially Responsible Investment policy.”

Cal Poly’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSSR) enforces the university’s student conduct code. OSSR seeks to address behavioral problems in a “developmental and educational manner with the goal of fostering the ethical development and personal integrity of students,” according to its mission statement.

Raytheon is a US aerospace and defense contractor that earned $25 billion in 2017 and employed 64,000 workers around the world, according to the company’s website. Raytheon has close ties to Cal Poly. Ed Ware, a senior manager at the company, sits on the board of the university’s Career Services Advisory Council, and the former chairman and CEO of Raytheon, William Swanson, is on the board of the Cal Poly Foundation.

Mick Bruckner, who graduated from Cal Poly in June 2018, participated in some 25 campus protests during his four years at the university, according to an interview he gave to KCBX, the public radio station in San Luis Obispo. In addition to his involvement with the SLOPC, Bruckner has participated in protests with the Cal Poly Students for Quality Education, the Cal Poly Queer Student Association, and Time’s Up Cal Poly. He helped to organize the April 19 protest at the career fair, and was the first to receive a notice from OSSR that he was under investigation.

Further Details

Six students from the SLOPC sat on the ground directly in front of one of Raytheon’s three tables at the annual Cal Poly spring career fair on April 19, 2018, while a seventh handed out fliers, filmed parts of the demonstration, and interacted with university representatives. A video posted on the SLOPC’s Facebook page showed the students holding a banner that read, “Divest From War/Stop The War Machine/SLO Peace Coalition,” while singing a protest song based on “God Bless America” that included lyrics accusing Raytheon of “killing across the world for that war money” and calling on the company to “lay your weapons down.”

Thirteen days later, Mick Bruckner, who had helped to organize the protest, received an email from OSSR informing him he was being investigated for “violating multiple codes of conduct” when he “disrupted” the career fair, Bruckner told KCBX. He said the letter also accused him of having an “unpermitted sign.” Other student demonstrators soon received similar emails from the OSSR.

In an email to KCBX, Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote that the demonstration was susceptible to investigation due to “Campus Administrative Policy 140,” or the university’s time, place, and manner guidelines. “To ensure that the exercise of the right of free expression does not interfere with university functions…the university maintains and enforces campus regulations regarding the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression by individuals and groups,” he wrote. Lazier said the investigation was warranted because the career fair was a private, university-sponsored event. If it were confirmed that a violation of university policy took place, he explained, the students could face disciplinary action—which could range from loss of financial aid to expulsion.

SLOPC published a petition, which had received 3,420 signatures as of August 13, 2018, calling for Cal Poly to drop its investigation. It noted several previous protests on campus and questioned why the university had chosen to investigate this one. For example, in response to a protest against a visit by activist Milo Yiannopoulos, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong had said, “As a public university, Cal Poly is required to uphold free speech rights and provide an open forum for a variety of opinions, thoughts and ideas even those that may be distasteful or offensive.”

In late May 2018, Armstrong commented on the April 19 protest, saying, “Free speech rights do not include the right to disrupt university events.”

Outcome

University investigation dropped due to insufficient evidence

Two months after the OSSR notified SLOPC student protesters they were being investigated, university officials announced that the investigation was being dropped after a preliminary review of the case. According to an email statement Lazier sent to The Tribune, a “full investigation was not warranted after finding insufficient evidence that violations of student conduct had occurred.”

SLOPC calls on university to offer academic accommodations, apology, and compensation

On June 6, 2018, after the university announced that the investigation had been dropped, SLOPC published a statement on its Facebook page asking OSSR and Armstrong to “arrange appropriate academic accommodations and compensation” for “unwarranted academic and emotional distress.” The group also called on the university to “issue an immediate apology for its disparate treatment of free speech rights on our campus” and to “implement training programs for all campus employees regarding proper engagement with student protest as well as issue a formal statement to the campus community.”

External References

Cal Poly drops investigation into students’ anti-war protest, The Tribune

Cal Poly SLO students say they face investigation, possible punishment for protesting career fair, The Tribune

Chapter 100: University Organization and Campuswide Policies, Cal Poly Campus Administrative Policies

Free speech or disruption? Cal Poly student protests sparks university investigation, KCBX Central Coast Public Radio

Raytheon ‘Who We Are’ page, Raytheon official website

The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities Homepage

Video of SLO Peace Coalition protest, SLO Peace Coalition Facebook page

Cal Poly Drops Investigation Against Peaceful Protesters, SLOPC Facebook page

Prepared by Erin Doherty ‘20

Uploaded August 20, 2018