Cal Poly hosts forum to address racism on campus amid another blackface incident

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Cal Poly's biannual Baker Forum on May 4 became tense when the discussion turned to freedom of speech and whether hate speech at the university should be punished.

ANOTHER INCIDENT Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong informed students and staff of a second incident of a student wearing blackface in a May 4 video. - IMAGE COURTESY OF CAL POLY SLO
  • Image Courtesy Of Cal Poly SLO
  • ANOTHER INCIDENT Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong informed students and staff of a second incident of a student wearing blackface in a May 4 video.

The forum began with a speech from Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith, a recently hired diversity and inclusion consultant, on how the university can work together to heal and move forward from racial tensions.

"I daresay that this campus is in pain and it is fueled—I'm going to go ahead and say some things to you—it is fueled by ignorance, it is fueled by lack of exposure," she said.

McLaughlin-Smith was hired after an image of a fraternity member wearing blackface at a party in April set off a string of racially charged incidents, protests, and calls for policy changes at Cal Poly. The most recent incident—another image of a student in blackface circulating on social media—was announced the morning of the forum.

Discussion at the May 4 forum heated up after panelists were asked if there was room for forgiveness of the frat member who wore blackface, as many on campus are calling for his expulsion.

"Forgiveness is not exempt from punishment in other ways," said panelist and ethnic studies student Leilani Hemmings Pallay, who received applause.

Another panelist, philosophy professor Patrick Lin, said that expelling a student for non-criminal hate speech isn't really an option for a public university. He said if the university was to expel a student for something like that, it would be hit with a lawsuit that would go to the Supreme Court.

"If we expelled other students thinking that Cal Poly is the test case where we re-invent free speech laws. That, again, is a very interesting thought experiment, but I don't know if it's up to any of us to bring that kind of risk for an entire university," Lin said.

Assistant professor of ethnic studies Jose Navarro replied to Lin's comment by saying that he doesn't believe racism is too expensive to fight and that the First Amendment is not an absolute right if free speech crosses the line and becomes harassment.

"The legal framework and then attaching a notion or a judgment of reasonability and credibility to students who are making a request or demand to expel someone from a community, you have to entertain it. And you cannot hide under the construct of 'this is legal.' If we hid behind that, there would be no progress in America with regard to race and inclusion," Navarro said.

Hours before the Baker Forum, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong announced in a video posted on the university's Facebook page that he'd been made aware of another blackface incident.

President Armstrong Campus Address - May 4, 2018 from Cal Poly on Vimeo.

Armstrong said he was "disgusted" to announce that an individual shared a photo that "appears to ridicule the blackface incident by imitating it." The image was shared with a private group of fraternity members on the image-sharing app Snapchat, Armstrong said.

"Actions were taken by [the] fraternity members, and it is through this active accountability that we have come to find out about this incident," Armstrong said.

The original incident occurred April 7, when a photo of a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member with his face painted back surfaced online, and was widely shared. The incident sparked national news coverage and reignited protests and long-standing concerns over incidents of racial insensitivity and a lack of diversity on campus. As a result of that incident, the university placed all of its fraternity and sorority chapters on indefinite suspension April 17.

In his May 4 video address, Armstrong said both blackface incidents, as well as "reports from other fraternities and sororities" were turned over to the California Attorney General's Office for investigation. Armstrong ended the video by pledging to make the campus safe for minority students. Δ


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