Message on freedom of expression and related resources

Sept. 26, 2019

Dear Campus Community,

With the 2019-20 academic year already off to a whirlwind start, I want to take a few minutes to address an important issue that’s generating much discussion and concern on our campus and at universities throughout the country.

That issue has to do with free expression and all of its complex nuances. What may seem like a fairly simple notion is increasingly subject to heated debate and interpretation, causing many of us to question exactly what it means.

This message is intended to address the issue of free expression at Fresno State and give all members of our community the background on which our policies and beliefs are based. I apologize for its length but I believe everyone deserves as much clarity as possible on this topic.

Framing The Issue

We can all agree in principle with the concept of free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment and many of our own long-standing policies. At the same time, we are increasingly aware that some forms of protected speech may be offensive, even abhorrent, to many of us and run counter to the values we seek to teach and live by every day.

How should we think about these inherent conflicts in a way that protects the legal rights of all individuals and groups to free expression while preserving and honoring our commitment to mutual respect, tolerance and understanding? More to the point, how can we — the entire Fresno State community — model vigorous and respectful debate, open dissent and open minds, even when the issues are contentious and opinions are deeply held?

Our Collective Strengths

I grapple with this question every day, and I don’t have an easy answer. But I do know that this University is remarkably well placed to act as a leader on this issue.

-- We benefit from an exceptional collection of talented and thoughtful individuals — students, faculty and staff alike — who represent the rich cultural and intellectual diversity of our nation.

-- We attract an extremely diverse mix of students whose common bond is that they all work hard to get here and stay here, and they’re eager to learn and build a better future for themselves and their families.

-- We serve a large, heterogeneous region that looks to us for leadership on the challenges we face as a society, including how people with vastly different backgrounds and perspectives can work together to achieve significant things and improve the quality of life for everyone.

Fresno State succeeds because of these qualities, not despite them. And for that reason, I’m counting on every member of our University community to recommit to the core beliefs and values that unite us — despite any personal or political differences — as an institution.

Our Beliefs and Values

What are those beliefs and values? Rather than fall back on hollow promises to “do our best” in a world that demands so much more, I believe the place to start is to say, unequivocally, what we believe, what we expect, and what we will and will not tolerate.

1. We believe how we treat each other is critical to our success.

Our Principles of Community do an outstanding job of describing the values and behaviors we collectively aspire to as members of the university community. I urge you to reread them, think about them and discuss them with your colleagues.

2. We believe in free and open expression of ideas and opinions, as outlined in University regulations governing time, place and manner.

In many ways, this is the heart of what we do as an educational institution. But there are exceptions that everybody needs to understand. This includes any language or activity not protected by the U.S. Constitution or by this policy, including defamation, obscenity, false advertising, terrorist threats or the promotion of violence. I encourage you to take the time to read the University’s Interim Time, Place and Manner of Free Expression policy, which covers these exceptions and related issues. (Please note a new Time, Place and Manner of Free Expression policy is going through the meet-and-confer process with our collective bargaining units.)

Let me expand on this a bit. It’s important to say that we fully respect the personal and political beliefs of every individual who is part of the Fresno State community. However, I want to be clear on one point: Fresno State denounces the actions of individuals and groups that espouse hatred toward others. Our community does not condone bigotry, hatred, discrimination and other forms of social violence against individuals or groups based on their race, ethnicity, immigrant status, religion or other identities. We are committed to providing a campus community that is safe, equitable and responsive for everyone.

I recognize the often difficult and very real balancing act between upholding our values and what the First Amendment protects. The threshold of our values is often considerably higher than what is protected by the Constitution. Again, I refer you to our Principles of Community for a discussion of our beliefs and values.

For instance, you may think that a person or group vocally calling for the abolition of abortion should not be allowed to do so on campus because some may feel uncomfortable or even unsafe hearing those calls. Alternatively, you may be offended to hear someone on campus advocate for greater restrictions on guns. Regardless of your perspectives, I believe that listening to others’ beliefs and even engaging with them in a respectful manner is the best way to learn and grow. However, if the content or the manner in which that person or group is verbalizing their perspectives is truly intolerable for you, you can walk away, voice your own perspective in another location, write a letter to the editor or otherwise express your opinion without engaging in confrontation.

3. We value and uphold academic freedom.

As stated in the University’s statement on academic freedom, it is the cornerstone of a university. Intellectual ferment is dependent upon academic and intellectual freedom. Freedom in teaching is fundamental for the protection of both faculty and students in teaching and learning. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. I also encourage you to read the Academic Senate’s statement on free speech.

While the University gives great weight to the responsibility of preserving academic freedom, it does so within the context of respect for law and the reasoned consideration of others.

Coupled with academic freedom are faculty members’ rights and responsibilities (APM 336). Consistent with the University’s Principles of Community and APM 336, faculty are expected to show respect for and due consideration of the role and contributions that every member of the University community, whether faculty, staff, student or administrator, makes toward the mission of the University.

4. We believe students should enjoy the rights and privileges of adults in our society.

Nevertheless, as in society at large, rights and freedoms are supported by a framework of responsible conduct, without which the rights and freedoms of all may suffer. Thus, the exercise of student rights and privileges entails the use of responsible judgment, conformity to the law, and respect for the rights, interests and values of others.

I encourage students to read the student code of conduct that guides their adherence to University expectations, including interactions with other members of the campus community. Since situations arise occasionally in which students are not sure what constitutes disruption within the classroom, it’s helpful to read this page to learn what is considered to be disruptive behavior, and the procedures faculty may take to maintain the orderliness and integrity of the learning environment.

5. We embrace our commitment to free expression, subject to the limits noted above, anywhere on campus.

Freedom of expression is not limited to a certain area on campus. Years ago, Fresno State had what was called the “free speech zone,” a term some campus community members still use. In fact, the University defends your rights to free speech and the peaceful expression of ideas throughout the campus, not to a narrowly defined area. This is also applicable to members of the public who are not part of the campus community.

Freedom of expression, however, is not an absolute right. It coexists with other rights and the need for public order.

To ensure the exercise of the right of free expression does not interfere with Fresno State functions, imperil public safety, or obstruct or damage University facilities, Fresno State will, at times, establish and enforce campus regulations regarding the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression by individuals and groups.

6. Finally, we believe everyone should understand and respect privacy rules and laws pertaining to video and voice recordings.

Because technology and social media facilitate recordings of people, with or without their permission, I want to clarify some aspects of recordings that have been a source of discussion on our campus in recent years.

Video and voice recordings are generally permitted in public spaces, such as campus outdoor areas, where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy as defined by California law. However, recording someone after they have refused consent and expressed an intent to have a private discussion could constitute a violation of California law. If you are approached in a public space on campus and do not want to be recorded, you are encouraged to refrain from engaging with the person(s) recording and to walk away from the situation. A person can make a video recording of other people interacting in public, even if they are having a private conversation, but the person cannot make an audio recording of the conversation.

In contrast, recording classroom discussions may only be done if the professor teaching the class has specifically provided permission in advance, such as part of an accommodation for students with disabilities. However, these recordings may only be used for educational purposes related to the class.

Under the California Invasion of Privacy Act, California requires both parties to consent before the communication can be legally recorded, except in public spaces, as mentioned previously, where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy. Unless a professor has explicitly stated otherwise, communications in the classroom are intended for the students in the class and not for the general public. A person who records in a classroom setting without permission runs the risk of violating the professor’s federal copyright rights. A recording could also violate the privacy rights of other students in the class under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) if it is subsequently released to the public. A person who records without permission in a classroom or lecture could face violations of a criminal law and also civil penalties for copyright violations.

REPORTING RESOURCES

Finally, if you have concerns about how you or others have been treated on campus, here are reporting and action options for your consideration.

Thank you for your attention to this important topic. As we start the new semester, please join with me in affirming our commitment to free speech and inclusive dialogue.

Sincerely,
Joseph I. Castro, Ph.D., M.P.P.
President