Free speech or disruption? Cal Poly student protest sparks university investigation

May 23, 2018

In April, a small group of students held a demonstration at a university career fair at San Luis Obispo’s Cal Poly. Most of the students involved have discovered they are under investigation by the university for the protest. Cal Poly administration says they broke career fair rules; the students say it was free speech.

In the video posted on the SLO Peace Coalition Facebook page, there are six students sitting on the ground holding a banner and singing. They were protesting the United States defense contractor Raytheon because the company had a booth at the career fair.

“We've always wanted to make our presence known at a career fair,” Matt Klepfer said. "Not to be disruptive. Not to shut down the event. But to be there and to express our right to free speech."

Klepfer helped organize the event. He and the other students have been involved with larger protests before about fee hikes, student homelessness, President Trump and more.

“We had assigned police liaisons who were going to communicate with police officers and staff, to make sure that we weren't violating any laws, to make sure that we were following the rules,” Kepfer said.

It was a short protest.

“After 15 minutes, getting tired on our own, the six singers decided to get up and leave without ever being asked to leave,” said Kelsey Zazanis, one of the police liaisons. “Not once were they asked to leave. For all of us, it of set a tone of like, ‘Wow we just did this. We were allowed to do it. And never got in trouble. Like, that went great.’”

“A lot of stuff was happening at the university...that's when we were making national headlines for the blackface incident,” said Mick Bruckner, another of the protesters. He referenced an incident in April when a fraternity member wore blackface and shined a light on incidents of racism on the campus.

“I was very much engaged with trying to support the organizing that was happening around that,” Bruckner said. “And I was really busy during that time, and so honestly I wasn't even thinking about what had happened at the career fair.”

But a couple weeks later, Bruckner received a letter telling him he was being investigated by the university for breaking the rules of the career fair. He was the first one.

“There is this scary email from the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities that like was really, really intense,” Brucker said. "[It] said I had been accused of violating multiple codes of the student conduct. That I ‘willfully and substantially disrupted a university activity,’ and that I had some sort of ‘unpermitted sign.’”

Bruckner and the organizers are a bit confused by the letters from the university. They’ve been involved with protests on campus before, and they say they don’t remember seeing anything posted about signs and don't feel like they were disruptive. They came in and then they left.

“I felt really singled out,” Brucker said. “Particularly as a really visible queer organizer on this campus. I've probably been to over 25 protests on this campus and was involved in most of those in the planning process. And so I'm really, really aware of the 'time, place, and manner' policies on my campus. And more than that I've developed relationships with many folks on this campus particularly in the university police department.”

The blackface incident at Cal Poly did not just ignite conversations about race on campus. It fanned free speech flames as well.

Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong said his hands were tied when it came to taking any disciplinary action against students involved in the blackface incident because they were protected by the First Amendment. This is also a university where the Cal Poly Republicans erected a controversial ‘free speech wall’ that ended up displaying racist and xenophobic remarks. Cal Poly permitted conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to come to campus twice, citing free speech. In return, the university spent tens of thousands of dollars on security.

“President Armstrong spent this entire year telling us about how important free speech is,” Bruckner said. “And as far as I'm concerned what these students were doing many of which were some of the most beloved and dedicated community Cal Poly community members. The fact that they're doing this as egregious. I think it's a complete violation of our rights, our First Amendment rights.”

Cal Poly would not speak on this issue, but in an email university spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote:

“Cal Poly supports the free speech rights of all of its campus community members and visitors. To ensure that the exercise of the right of free expression does not interfere with university functions, imperil public safety, obstruct or damage university facilities, or cause individuals to become audiences against their will, the university maintains and enforces campus regulations regarding the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression by individuals and groups. These are outlined in Campus Administrative Policy 140.”

Lazier added that the career fair was not open to the public.

“Someone who chooses to stage a disruptive protest during such an event could face potential criminal charges. As well, if this action is engaged in by an employee or student, the university would review the activity to determine whether it violated a university policy. If a violation of university policy is found to have occurred, an employee and/or student could face appropriate disciplinary action. Privacy laws preclude the university from discussing any specific student conduct processes, so I can’t tell you whether there are any reviews under way specific to this matter."

Lazier said there were no arrests associated with the protest, and there weren't any criminal charges submitted to the District Attorney’s Office.

So what’s next?

“I'm not 100 percent sure what to expect,” said Kristen Whalen, also a protester. “But I don't think any sanctions they propose are warranted, because we weren't doing anything and exercising free speech and our First Amendment rights.

And did she tell her parents?

“My mom is supportive of me.” Whalen said. “But she said to be careful, because we're going against some pretty powerful people.”

Below is the original transcript of an interview aired on KCBX’s Issues & Ideas on Tuesday, May 23, 2018.

[audio from protest]

TYLER PRATT, KCBX Host and Reporter: What you're hearing right now is a part of a video taken at a career fair at San Luis Obispo's California Polytechnic State University - or Cal Poly - about a month ago. It is six student protesters, sitting on the ground, singing and holding a banner. They were protesting the US defense contractor Raytheon. The company had a booth at the career fair.

The protest didn't last very long. No one was arrested, and the protesters left not long after. But a couple of weeks later, the students started receiving letters. The letters informed them they were under investigation by the university. They had broken some rules, and disciplinary action could be taken. The students say they were exercising their First Amendment rights.

This comes at a time when the university has been the setting of free speech debates. Earlier in the spring, a Cal Poly fraternity member wore blackface, and this shined a light on a string of racist incidents at the university. Cal Poly's president Jeffrey Armstrong said his hands were tied to take any disciplinary action against students involved because they were protected by the First Amendment. This is also a university where the Cal Poly Republicans erected a controversial free speech wall that ended up displaying racist and xenophobic remarks. Cal Poly also permitted conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to come to campus, twice...allowed due to free speech and in return spent tens of thousands of dollars on security.

KCBX News reached out to Cal Poly to learn more about the investigation. A spokesperson said the administration wasn't able to speak with us and can't talk about student conduct processes.

Earlier this week I sat down with five of the students involved in the protest to hear about what happened, from their point of view. 

MATT KLEPFER: I am Matt Klepfer. I am a recent Cal Poly graduate in political science and I'm a member of the SLO Peace Coalition. So, yes, in February we had a, “Divest From the War Machine,” week of action - we had a bunch of educational events. We watched a movie. We had an awesome discussion about how our campus is linked to the war machine. And then we wanted to come up with kind of what was our next big thing and we've always wanted to make our presence known at a career fair. Not to be disruptive. Not to shut down the event. But to be there and to express our right to free speech. And so when this one came around, we really thought this was an awesome opportunity to make ourselves known, get the word out, and make people think, right? You're not just going to a career fair. This is not just a place to get a job, right? There are certain jobs that go into certain industries that are really violent. So we showed up. We we met before to talk about what we were what our plan was for the day.

We had assigned police liaisons who were going to communicate with police officers and staff, to make sure that we weren't violating any laws, to make sure that we were following the rules. We walked into the career fair. I carried a sign. We made a banner. I made the banner, I carried the sign. It wasn't actually other students, it was me. And that's important because that becomes a part of this investigation that's going on, it's like the sign apparently [is] really breaking the rules. And so, yeah, we walked in, we sat down in front of - we actually began by standing. We we took out the banner, we stood in front of the Raytheon booth, not disrupting the staff on either side, who were continued to job recruit the entire time we are there. People were getting jobs with Raytheon while we were singing. We stood there while we started singing. Within a few minutes, I noticed police officers were kind of far away, but we had a liaison who was talking to them. We sang for probably about ten minutes, at one point we read our- we have some demands for a Cal Poly to divest from the war machine. And then a few minutes later, we left.

KELSEY ZAZANIS: I'm Kelsey Zazanis and I'm an anthropology and geography third year at Cal Poly.

I was a police liaison and therefore I was not singing. I was filming the six protesters and keeping watch, making sure nothing dangerous went down. We didn't expect anything of that sort. So I was the only one who communicated with cops, and no cops asked us to leave, no career services people asked us to leave. The most interaction we had was one cop walking up to me and asking, “How long do you think this will go on for?” To me, that question implies they're not going to try to stop it and they're trying to cooperate with us. To me, an implied like, “Oh, so what we're doing is OK,” and I just responded, “I don't know, no more than an hour.” But I wasn't sure, it only lasted 15 minutes, singing is tiring.

And then after 15 minutes, getting tired on our own, the six singers decided to get up and leave without ever being asked to leave. Not once were they asked to leave. For all of us a kind, it of set a tone of like, “Wow, we just did this. We were allowed to do it, and never got in trouble. Like, that went great.”

We left the recreation center, which was where the career fair was held. And I told the singers about something that had happened to me while I was filming them and that was at one point a career services staff member, she just decided to start standing like right in front of the six singers. Just standing there, which was like strange, and I was like, “What does she trying do? Is she like trying to discourage them from continuing by just like blocking them?”

Later as I was like thinking about the charges, I guess one of them was willful disruption. And there was no way we could have known we were going to get in trouble for that supposed intention, when like no one was asking us to leave while we were in there. No one was really expressing concern over how disruptive it was, because their recruitment was going on just fine.

But specifically this woman stood, practically joined the protesters and just stood in front of the Raytheon booth. They said we were willfully obstructing and disrupting. so we weren't blocking the booth, but she's doing it too. And I know that's like a weird claim to make. But she was just standing there.

So I walk up to her and I ask, “Could you please move? It's really disrespectful to block them because we're students and we pay for this building and we have the right to be here.” And I was really respectful and she didn't reply, but then kind of softly places her hand on me, as if she's like consoling me, but without even saying anything and it felt like really violating for me, so I like I ripped my arm away, and I said "don't touch me.” I just repeating myself, “Could you please move.” She's just standing there really not doing anything. She tries touching me again and this time it's a little harder. And I say, like really stirringly, I'm like, “Do not touch me. You are not allowed to touch me.” And she she backtracked, she takes her arm off, she's like, “You're right.” And then, she backs out from in front of the protests, she backs away from trying to block them because she realizes she wasn't allowed to touch me.

But so that was our only communication with career staff inside the event. I spoke of my only communication with police. And so when I told the singers about this occurrence they said, “That's not OK. You should file a report.” That was when we tried to re-enter the career fair. And then police specifically told us, “We were told not to let you back in.” Then we saw the head of career services and said, “One of your staff members touched us.” And he didn't respond and just closed the door in our face.

So we were never, I was never, able to file this report, which is upsetting because I didn't really care enough to like harm this woman's job. I didn't want to file a report like this. But the fact that, like, our efforts were ignored is frustrating. I could have let that go. But the fact that now we have reports being filed against us is so troubling.That's what's frustrating. That they're claiming we were trying to get back in like we were these disruptors. I think we were more peaceful than them.

MICK BRUCKNER: My name is Mick Bruckner. I am a fourth year student at Cal Poly, a political science major about to graduate and I'm primarily an organizer with Students for Quality Education. But I'm a member of Slo Peace Coalition as well.

A lot of stuff was happening at the university between that time -  that's when we were making national headlines for the blackface incident. And I was very much engaged with trying to support the organizing that was happening around that, and I was really busy during that time, and so honestly, I wasn't even thinking about what had happened at the career fair. And then I open my email I think like the Sunday night before I had some big midterm. And there is this scary email from the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities that was really, really intense and said I had been accused of violating multiple codes of the student conduct, that I willfully and substantially disrupted a university activity, and that I had some sort of unpermitted sign.

KLEPFER: So, apparently we weren't allowed to bring a sign into the career fair, and in the emails that have gone out, and some of the meetings that have happened, that's been really clearly mentioned. That there are really strict rules about what you're allowed to bring into the career fair and you can't bring a backpack and apparently you can't bring in a sign. I brought in the sign. I'm the one who brought in the sign. I’ve graduated. I have my degree at the university, can totally, like, bring those charges onto me. But the other students who are involved did not bring in a sign, that was completely me. I'm the one who broke the one most clear rule was apparently that we broke. And yet I have not received a letter asking me to meet with the university about sanctions. I'm not sure why other students would be targeted for not explicitly breaking a rule. I'm the one who brought in a sign and I'm not being targeted. I don't quite understand why that is.

BRUCKNER: Some of the other students began receiving letters. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was the first one to receive one. And I felt really singled out, particularly as a really visible queer organizer on this campus. I've probably been to over 25 protests on this campus and was involved in most of those in the planning process. And so I'm really, really aware of the time, place, and manner of policies on my campus. And more than that I've developed relationships with many folks on this campus, particularly in the university police department. Chief Hughes and I are on a first name basis and we have worked to develop a relationship between protesters and police on this campus where we have a working relationship and understand the limits that we have on our protests within the university. And when we reach those limits, what the expectations of the university are to communicate those limits to us.

President Armstrong spent this entire year telling us about how important free speech is, and as far as I'm concerned, what these students were doing... many of which were some of the most beloved and dedicated Cal Poly community members. The fact that they're doing this is egregious. I think it's a complete violation of our rights, our First Amendment rights. And I know that I'm trying to graduate. I have midterms. I failed a midterm on the day of my investigative conference because I was so nervous. And they're literally not holding [accountable] people who are harassing students based on their race, their sexual orientation, their gender identity. And they decided to come after us. What does that mean? I want to know what that means in terms of what our university's commitment to its students is.

DOMINIC SCIALABBA: My name is Dominic Scialabba. I’m a third-year political science major at Cal Poly. I just want to say that Cal Poly is currently putting each of these peaceful protesters in a continuous anxious state, during one of the most stressful quarters that this school has seen. Where it appears that Cal Poly is at the zenith of racism and oppression on this campus, in a climate where Kyler Watkins is being protected under free speech. These students are being punished with the kind of preemptive notion that they will be punished. I personally am just waiting to receive this email and not knowing if I'm going to or when I'm going to puts such a damper on my education. I can't focus on my classes. I try to. But all of us are dealing with this when we're just trying to stand up for what we believed in under a protected First Amendment right that Cal Poly wants to protect for a certain demographic of students that I guess does not include us at this moment.

KRISTEN WHALEN: My name is Kristen Whalen and I'm also a fourth year at Cal Poly. I'm an anthropology and geography major and I'm also a member of SLO Peace Coalition. I'm nervous in the sense I'm not 100 percent sure what to expect. But I don't think any sanctions they propose are warranted, because we weren't doing anything and exercising free speech and our First Amendment rights.

PRATT: Did you tell your parents?

WHALEN: I told my mom like two days ago.

PRATT: What was your parent's reaction?

WHALEN: My mom is supportive of me. But she said to be careful, because we're going against some pretty powerful people.

BRUCKNER: My mom and dad are Cal Poly alumni, and I told them about it the second I got the letter. They were appalled. They are embarrassed by this university and the way it treats marginalized communities and protesters. And my parents are fully supportive of me. They're organizing other alumni. They are going to support us. And yes, g raduation is right around the corner and I just want to say to Cal Poly that I don't care if you take my graduation away. But my mom does and she's paid a lot of money for this, and we have done nothing wrong. We have exercised our free speech rights. She is proud of me. And so if the university does this, she's not going to be angry with me, she's going to be angry at the university. Just like Kristen said, we will not accept any sanctions. We will fight this all the way.

ZANANIS: My mom wants me to do the opposite of fight this all the way; once I received my letter, she wants me to go to the meeting to accept as little punishment as they're willing to give me and get out of this unscathed. Because I guess as an out-of-state student, my mom's like thrown so much money at Cal Poly. Her only goal is for her daughter to get her undergrad and graduate [degrees]. She, regularly, is telling me, 'I did not send you to college to protest.' And I did not go to college to protest either. It was kind of like some something I couldn't ignore.

BRUCKNER: Many of us are choosing to stand up because we have the privilege and resources to do so. And we know that so many students do not right now in this moment. At a time when so many community's rights are being rolled back, we need to stand up for our basic First Amendment rights and fight for those. We’re going to use our resources and privilege to do that. And if you want to reach out to us and support us you can just message the SLO Peace Coalition Facebook page and find out how to get involved.

PRATT: Those were Cal Poly students Matt Klepfer, Kelsey Zazanis, Kristen Whalen, Mick Bruckner and Dominic Scialabba speaking with me about their involvement with a protest on the Cal Poly campus and a subsequent university investigation. 

Cal Poly would not speak on this issue, but in an email, a university spokesperson said, "Cal Poly supports the free speech rights of all of its campus community members and visitors. 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. The event was not open to the general public. Someone who chooses to stage a disruptive protest during such an event could face potential criminal charges. However, no criminal charges have been submitted to the District Attorney’s Office."

We'll keep you updated as this story develops.