July 10, 2002

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SAN FRANCISCO IS an activist city, and of course, the college campus in its southwest corner has a long history as an activist campus. San Francisco State University doesn't usually get the publicity UC Berkeley does for campus protests, but during the Vietnam War it was a hotbed of radical activity. Now, thanks to university president Robert Corrigan, it's at the center of an ugly fight over free speech rights.

As Camille T. Taiara reports on page 18, two student groups held noisy rallies back in May – one in support of Israel, one promoting the rights of Palestinians. Students are always passionate about issues, and in this case two opposing groups on campus had strong ideas, which happened to be in direct conflict.

By most accounts, the outcome was relatively peaceful: The students shouted back and forth at one another (at times using pretty nasty language), and at one point somebody may have stomped on a photocopy of the Israeli flag. But nobody was assaulted, nobody was prevented from making his or her political points, and (other than possibly the photocopied flag) nobody's property was damaged.

The cops in this town do more damage to protesters on a regular basis than either of these groups apparently did to the other.

But one SFSU professor, who sided with the Israeli students, sent out an e-mail calling the event an anti-Israeli "riot," something even campus officials say was totally untrue. Corrigan received more than 2,000 e-mails demanding he take action against the "rioters" – and he totally overreacted. Three students – two pro-Palestinian protesters and one from the pro-Israel side – are facing campus charges that could lead to suspension, and Corrigan is pushing the San Francisco district attorney to charge them with hate crimes.

The students' lawyers (who won't be allowed into any campus disciplinary proceedings) can't find out exactly what the charges are or what the evidence is, but apparently it amounts to this: some angry students called one another offensive names. For this, the lives of three kids could be badly damaged.

I'm not endorsing racial slurs here (and that sort of speech shouldn't be tolerated on campus), but criminal charges and suspension? For calling somebody a rude name in the heat of a political protest over a really divisive issue? Corrigan should be happy the protest was relatively peaceful; the students should be congratulated (overall) for avoiding violence (something, as I said, the cops often don't do). Making free speech on campus a crime is a really bad idea.

Tim Redmond tredmond@sfbg.com