Recently, the school received a below than average free speech rating, according to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that defends student and faculty civil liberties on college campuses. CPP received an overall yellow light free speech rating in FIRE’s grading scale.
A yellow light rated institution is “one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression,” according to FIRE’s website.
Institutions are evaluated on speech policies that fall into two categories: advertised commitments to free expression and restrictions on expressive rights.
The two speech categories are then subdivided into specific policies in which each school is graded on.
These range from harassment policies to policies on tolerance, respect and civility, bias, hate speech, bullying, protest and demonstration as well as posting policies.
CPP received a yellow light rating on its Student Conduct Code, Housing License Agreement and Hate Crime Policy.
The California State University system’s Executive Order 1097 also got the same rating.
According to Laura Beltz, a senior program officer on policy reform at FIRE, CPP received the yellow light rating on its Student Conduct Code because of its provision on civility.
“Civility is a broad term that includes protected speech,” Beltz said. “The university may certainly encourage students to use civil language, but requiring civility could have a chilling effect on controversial speech, and could be applied to punish protected speech.”
The university’s Housing License Agreement gives housing staff the right to remove posters that include so-called obscenities.
Beltz said that material that is deemed legally obscene on a case-by-case basis may not be protected by the First Amendment.
FIRE has demonstrated that the term “obscenities” in university policy more often refers colloquially to foul language and profanity, rather than the quality of being obscene, as in the case of something such as child pornography.
The policy also bans criminal or severe harassment, which Beltz said is a confusing distinction to make, as the policy should simply ban postings that constitute harassment.
Reyes Luna II, director of residence life at CPP, decides which posters are allowed in university housing and she explained how such posters are approved.
“Posters are not approved if they do not have the OSLCC (Office of Student Life & Cultural Centers) approval stamp,” Luna said. “We support all campus clubs and organizations. If the advertisement is from a non-CPP organization or club it will not be posted within housing because these buildings are the residents’ home. We do not allow solicitation or marketing in the residents’ homes.”
Students and non-students must also obtain approval for any type of advertising or selling they plan on doing on campus.
Melissa Villanueva, a fifth-year professional engineering major who is also a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and of the Society of Women’s Engineers, said she has had experience with the lengthy process of requesting approval for posters and advertising/selling on campus.
“Usually we have to fill out paperwork online and in person at the OSLCC depending on if we just want to advertise or also sell food,” she said. “To sell food we have to get a food handler’s permit and that can take approximately 15 to 20 business days. In regard to getting approval for posters, once they are approved, you get a list of regulations of where you can and can’t post them. It can be a lengthy process getting approval.”
The university has run into issues regarding its free speech policies before.
In March of 2015, student Nicolas Tomas filed a lawsuit against CPP with assistance from FIRE after the university stopped him for distributing flyers advocating animal rights on campus without a permit.
The university stopped him because he did not have a permit to advocate and distribute.
Tomas was directed to the OSLCC office to obtain administrative approval. CPP also had a policy that only allowed students to advertise and advocate in a “free speech zone.”
Four months after Tomas filed his lawsuit, CPP settled and agreed to revise its repressive speech policy and pay $35,000 in damages and legal fees, according to FIRE. After Tomas’ lawsuit, CPP updated its speech policy by getting rid of the “free speech zone,” which consisted of the area in front of the library and Bronco Student Center.
Now, approved activities regarding freedom of expression may take place at most areas on campus other than in parking lots, university buildings, and within 20 feet of any location where instruction and business activities are taking place.
CPP earned below average ratings in two other freedom of speech areas: its hate crime policy and the Cal State system’s Executive Order: 1097.
The hate crime policy received a low rating because it instructs students to report “hate incidents,” defined as expression with intention to create conflict because of a person’s particular characteristic, even where it does not actually rise to the level of a hate crime.
FIRE suggested that all of these policies should be revised to better represent and meet the standards of the First Amendment.
According to CPP administration, these policies are currently under the revision process.
“The name of the relevant policy is the time, place, and manner policy [and] it governs free speech,” said Nicole Hawkes, chief of staff. “It has been a two-year process of doing a complete revision, there has been a university committee composed to look carefully at the policy, we’ve reviewed it with our general counsel and consulted with FIRE on the content of the proposed policy revisions.
“The challenge with these policies is that it applies to all of the campus, which includes several collective bargaining units.”
Hawkes added that any changes have to come through an approval process.
“Every time we change a major policy for the university we have to go through a meet-and-confer process with the unions because these policies have an impact on working conditions,” she said. “The process can take up to several months. We have completed the policy revision and are now in the process of getting the meeting scheduled.”
Beltz said that without revision, even if the policies aren’t actually applied in practice, their presence on the books means students reading the policies may self-censor in order to avoid punishment.
“This sort of chilling effect on speech is impermissible at a public university that is legally bound by the First Amendment like Cal Poly Pomona,” Beltz said.
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