Cal Poly student's lawsuit says he was punished for trying to post flier

By Mary Beth Marklein

USA Today, September 25, 2003

A California Polytechnic State University senior plans to file a lawsuit against top campus officials today, arguing that they unfairly punished him after he tried to post a flier promoting an upcoming speech by an author whose ideas a group of black students found offensive.

The lawsuit, to be filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, reflects a growing frustration among some students over the rise of campus policies governing speech or conduct. In recent months, students have filed lawsuits in Texas, California and Pennsylvania, and more are expected.

But lawyers for the Cal Poly student also raise concerns about whether policies give preferential treatment to minorities.

“No one racial group ought to be able to veto the free-speech rights of anyone else just because of the color of their skin,” says Terence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights. The Washington-based public-interest law firm led the Supreme Court case this year against the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy. The court struck down the policy, which awarded points to minorities based on skin color.

The California case hinges on an incident last November when student Steve Hinkle, who is white, sought to post a flier on behalf of Cal Poly College Republicans. The flier promoted a speech by Mason Weaver, a conservative black author who argues that a dependence on government programs is akin to slavery.

In the lawsuit, lawyers say Hinkle entered a lounge in a multicultural center, where black students were finishing a pizza as they prepared for a Bible-study session. According to taped transcripts of Hinkle’s seven-hour judicial hearing made public by his supporters, some of the students said they found the flier offensive and told Hinkle to leave or they would call campus police. After a brief conversation — during which some documents describe Hinkle’s demeanor as “contentious” —Hinkle left. Campus police arrived a few minutes later.

Weaver’s speech took place without incident. But a few months later, Hinkle was found by the university’s Judicial Affairs offices to have violated a state regulation that bars “obstruction or disruption” of campus functions. Hinkle was asked to apologize but declined.

University officials won’t discuss details, citing privacy laws. But in an e-mail to alumni and others who contacted Cal Poly after learning of the incident, vice president of student affairs Cornel Mortonwrites that the disciplinary action involved student conduct, not free speech. Freedom of speech “does not include permission to disrupt scheduled meetings,” Morton’s e-mail says.

Officials say the matter is closed. But Hinkle wants his record cleared. “Any disruption was a result of these students being upset by the flier,” he says. “I’m virtually being punished for my beliefs.”