Students and members of local activists groups gathered outside Cal Poly’s Winter Career Fair Thursday in San Luis Obispo. They were protesting the campus presence of U.S. defense contractors—like Raytheon—who recruit at the fair. The demonstrators shouted, sang, and held signs that read “Peace Over Profit" and "Divest From War."
But at previous career fairs, a much smaller group of students went inside to protest the same companies. They sat on the ground and sang songs. This handful of students was later investigated for disrupting university activities. The investigation was later dropped, and no one got in trouble. But it raised questions about what is and is not free speech at Cal Poly.
In an effort to better clarify what disruptive speech is, university officials have launched a campaign to educate the campus community, passing out guides that explain free expression at school.
“So that when they want to express their voice, they are doing so in a way that’s compliant with both [Constitutional rights] and campus time, place and manner policies,” said Cal Poly Vice President for Student Affairs, Keith Humphrey. “Really it’s an effort for us to help [students] express themselves.”
“There are certain places of time we can say you can or cannot speak,” Humphrey said. “There’s certain places where you can or cannot speak. And there’s certain manners of how it can or can not happen.”
Humphrey said time and place are generally understood. Examples being, don’t blast loud sounds in the early morning hours and don't blocking doors and roadways with demonstrations. It’s the manner portion that can get murky.
“Someone standing outside a classroom window where a professor is teaching, with a megaphone shouting into the classroom,” Humphrey said. “That’s not the right manner, because it’s disrupting a scheduled academic activity.”
But some in the campus community have argued the Cal Poly fraternity member who wore blackface last spring, and Milo Yiannopoulos’ presence on campus, twice, disrupted academic activities.
“When things happen that are upsetting to individuals, they are very disruptive the campus culture and the ethos,” Humphrey said. “The difference is when it’s a potential violation of the university’s time, place and manner policy. That’s where the university gets involved.”
“The time, place and manner policy is written so vaguely that the university can twist it however they deem fit,” Kelsey Zazanis said.
Zazanis is a Cal Poly student who has been organizing the career fair protests, and one of the students previously investigated by the university.
“The nature of activism isn’t really to ask permission,” Zazanis said.
Zazanis said she’s had to start thinking pragmatically about campus protests.
"For this event to be a success, we want it to last as long as it possibly can,” Zazanis said. “We need to be cooperative to a certain extent.”
Zananis said when the university got wind of this week’s planned protest, administrators initially wanted a police presence at the fair. But the two sides compromised, and agreed to have representatives from the Dean of Students Office at the rally. Their job was to inform students if they we blocking pathways or if rules were at risk of being broken.
Ultimately, organizers said they felt like the rally was a success. Protestors passed out lots of materials and said they felt like they were heard. But they also have a list of demands for Cal Poly, like not making investments in producers of weapons or fossil fuel companies. And they say they will keep protesting until the demands are met.
For Zazanis, the whole experience of protesting on campus has given her new drive.
"Coming into Cal Poly, I didn’t expect any of this,” Zazanis said. “I entered as a business major. I thought I was going to enter corporate America. And now here I am, trying to fight back against capitalism and the war machine.”
Zazanis and school officials say they anticipate more protests in the spring quarter. For Zazanis and others who are politically active on campus, this means more opportunities to continue, as Cal Poly’s motto goes, “Learn by Doing.”