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Warned for free speech

Cal Poly needs to stop intimidating peaceful students

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Last spring, several students at Cal Poly were subjected to a formal investigation for peacefully singing at the school's career fair. The students, organized under the SLO Peace Coalition, sat in front of a booth staffed by Raytheon and sang an anti-war song to bring attention to the deep ties between their school, the weapons manufacturer, and the deaths of innocent civilians around the world. After fewer than 20 minutes, the students stood up and left the building. They skillfully put Cal Poly's educational philosophy of "learn by doing" into practice and exercised their First Amendment rights.

Rather than support the students' right to free speech, as the school claimed it was doing in the case of a student who wore blackface just weeks before, Cal Poly swiftly moved to frighten the students with possible disciplinary action. Only after national attention and public support from the Cal Poly chapter of the California Faculty Association did the school back down and issue a formal finding that no violation of the student code of conduct had occurred.

Undeterred, the SLO Peace Coalition harnessed momentum generated by the campus administration's naked attempt at intimidation. On Oct. 4, 2018, the coalition once again peacefully disrupted business as usual at the Cal Poly Career Fair, peacefully gathering in front of Raytheon's booth to protest arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the U.S.-backed war on Yemen. They were confident they had done nothing wrong, as the school had declared the previous spring. But once again, Cal Poly's Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities has aggressively targeted them with a renewed formal warning, citing a violation of the time, place, and manner policy they claimed the students did not violate just five months prior.

What has changed? The policy has not changed. Why is Cal Poly afraid of five students exercising their right to free speech? The students have not harmed other students. They have not harmed teachers. They have not disrupted learning. They have contributed to it. Is it possible that Cal Poly is afraid five singing students will harm the school's cozy relationship with companies that make missiles that kill children on the other side of the planet?

Cal Poly's response to peacefully singing students is an act of violence. The department tasked with protecting students is outrageously employing intimidation tactics against them to protect the school's ties to war profiteers. Instead of creating a nurturing learning environment, the school has:

• Moved to silence free speech on campus.

• Used formal investigations as an intimidation tool.

• Created a learning environment filled with emotional stress.

• Lashed out at teachers who have expressed support of the students involved.

• Made it clear students are less important than war profiteering donors.

This debacle is but one example of how the war machine trickles down through our institutions and everyday lives. By prioritizing the comfort of Raytheon, which rakes in billions from weapons sales annually, Cal Poly is inflicting violence on its own students and the world. The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities should drop its baseless investigation against the singing students immediately. Δ

Maya Rommwatt is a national organizer with CODEPINK. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write an opinion for publication and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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