Fourth letter regarding Chick-Fil-A at Cal Poly, SLO (August 4, 2012)

Dear Director Murphy and President Armstrong,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and discussion.  While I don’t agree with all the details of your public statement, I’m impressed with the clarity and tone;  you have given the issue some thought and are honestly and professionally working with the issue.

Nevertheless, I still feel that the notion of free speech and the first amendment in the context of a university environment are being distorted.  The university has many policies and guidelines against behavior and words that are nominally in the category of protected free speech.  That is, some behavior may be legal and protected by the constitution at the state and federal level, but the university does not condone it and, in some cases, has strict policies against it.

For example, hanging a confederate flag and a noose is not by itself illegal. Such acts are protected speech, although one may find it deeply offensive for what it represents.   Flying a confederate flag with a noose is something private citizens can do under the first amendment.  By itself it isn’t a hate crime. However, this exact event on campus four years ago in 2008 sparked one of the most heated campaigns against racism and bigotry at the university in recent history.  Rightly so.  The university recognized that such behavior is not in line with our university mission; it’s message is deeply offensive and creates a hostile, intolerant climate.  The university defended the students responsible citing the first amendment.  As far as I know, we did not take legal action against the students for that reason.  But, the university still took swift action to make sure such a thing would not happen again, making it clear that behavior of that kind (even if protected) was not acceptable. Indeed, that incident motivated Dean Bailey himself to augment the university mission in CoSaM with placards outside of every department office making it clear we promote an environment of tolerance and openness.  The flag and noose were removed on philosophical grounds, not legal ones.  Now, circa 2012, because of this incident, displaying a noose on a campus in California is actually illegal, but Cal Poly’s actions in 2008 were in advance of that law.  So, I argue, even if Chick-fil-A has not violated any discrimination laws on campus and their donations are legal and protected by their first amendment rights we, as a university community, should still make a philosophical stand and terminate our relationship Chick-fil-A since their presence does not create a climate of tolerance.

As another example: The university has both a drinking policy and a charter that attempts to stem alcohol abuse.  These go beyond the law; they extend to students that are over 21 years of age.  Drinking is not allowed on campus except under special, highly controlled circumstances.  This isn’t just a business or legal decision, it is a philosophical one.  We have issued strict statements that try and attenuate binge drinking and other alcohol abuses both on and off campus.  But alcohol itself is not illegal.  Alcoholism isn’t illegal. It isn’t a right either, but assuming they aren’t violating any other laws, adults over 21 are essentially allowed to do whatever they want to their bodies and consume as much alcohol as they wish, even to the brink of death.  Yet the university has rightly taken a stand against such abuses on purely philosophical grouds.  Why?  Because drinking (particularly binge drinking) is not in the spirit of the university mission and is an epidemic problem on colleges across the nation.

Another example: As you know, faculty and staff at Cal Poly who are in supervisory positions (such as you and I) must regularly take an extended course online in harassment sensitivity training.  This, of course, includes outright illegal discrimination and harassment, but goes well beyond that and extends to a rather large category of otherwise legally protected speech and behaviors.  This includes behaviors that impact race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. It is informed by the law, but is calibrated by people’s sensitivities. Indeed, the university’s policy attempts to stem even *potential situations* from arising.  For example, if someone finds a joke, comment, flyer, poster, email, behavior, and so on, offensive — or even believes one of those things to be *potentially* offensive to anyone in the protected categories — we are obligated to report it and have it investigated by the appropriate qualified human resources personnel.  This does not just apply to classroom behavior or in-office behavior, but also all auxiliary campus affiliations and contracts that might be in contact with university students and personnel.  Why doesn’t Chick-fil-A’s behavior at the national level count in this category?  If bikini calendars or overheard discussions in the copy room are reportable offenses under the campus’s current harassment guidelines, certainly the very controversial and offensive public statements of a company’s leadership and their company’s active donations should be considered in the same harassment category.  Doesn’t Chick-fil-A’s mere presence on campus now create a hostile and uncomfortable environment in the same sense that a bikini calendar or offensive office talk might create an uncomfortable learning/work environment for others?

Is there a place for controversial remarks and open discussion on campus?  Absolutely.  In the halls of academia such things should be welcomed in the form of seminars, speakers, forums, courses, protests etc.  We’ve had Ann Coulter visit our campus espousing her irrational and vitriolic form of right wing entertainment.  Do I personally agree with her on, well, anything at all?  Very unlikely.  Did I think it was a good use of university resources to have her come to campus?  Absolutely.  Veritas Forum, hosted annually by the student club Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) hosts a series of (in my opinion) remarkably silly, anti-scientific talks masked in pseudoscientific blather.  Do I agree with it?  No.  Do I approve of their presence in a university environment?  Yes.  It is a forum.  Anyone can come and discuss and debate.  We’ve had creationists speak on campus.  Skeptics debate them.  Atheists give talks on rather unpopular topics, with lively debate afterwards. Ex-Mormons have come to convey their controversial point of view, and Mormons attend the talk to defend their position.  You may recall Michael Pollan’s talk in 2009, the author and left wing activist who holds somewhat controversial views on diet and food.  There was a kerfuffle with Cal Poly donor Harris Ranch about his presence and we ultimately let a Harris Ranch representative come and defend their position.  Anyone should be able to express their views, even racists, sexists, religious zealots, atheists, pro-binge-drinkers, pro-bikini calendar people, pornographers, Confederates, and completely crazy people no one understands.  Although sometimes discussion topics and comments may be offensive to individuals, this vibrancy does not create a hostile and intolerant environment — quite the opposite.  It is is part of having an open and honest intellectual university community.  But does this mean we have to do business with them or lease them a space in The Avenue under the guise of “free speech” or “the first amendment”?  Absolutely not.  Having Chick-fil-A as a business partner on campus is definitely not in that same free speech category as creating an open intellectual environment.  In light of their anti-gay views, views they are free to *express* (and proudly do) under the first amendment, having a Chick-fil-A on campus is distinctly in the category of the harassment policy I gave above.  It makes many people uncomfortable in the same way vitriolic office talk, Penthouse, or a bikini calendar might make others.  For many campus citizens, it creates a climate of intolerance and hostility on campus as uncomfortable as a noose and confederate flag do.

In summary, we routinely decide as a campus that otherwise protected legal speech and behavior will not be tolerated at our university based on philosophical reasons rooted in our university mission.  Why Chick-fil-A is apparently being given a special status in this regard is unclear to me.  We are perfectly allowed to terminate our business relationship with Chick-fil-A on philosophical grounds while still celebrating their first amendment rights to express those very beliefs we disagree with.  Indeed, I would love for a representative of Chick-fil-A to come to campus to exercise their free speech and openly defend and discuss their position on gay rights.  Let them exercise their free speech in that capacity.  But this in no way obligates us to do business with them or lease them a space on campus to sell their product.


Thomas D. Gutierrez
Associate Professor
Physics Department
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407