An Odd Two-Year Fight Over a Poem Published in a Student Newspaper

Ready?  Here we go.  See if you can read the next sentence without breathing, blinking, or brow furrowing: A former California State University, Fresno, student is suing a bunch of people at the school for allegedly infringing upon his First Amendment rights after he confronted some faculty to express his anger over a poem published in a special supplement put out more than two years ago by the school’s student newspaper.

Got that?  Either way, travel with me to May 2011. The setting: CSU-Fresno (known as Fresno State).

At the time, inside a regular issue, The Collegian student paper released La Voz De Aztlan.  It is one of four “ethnic supplements” published in the Collegian.  They each appear twice per semester, centered on Asian, African-American, Armenian, and Hispanic issues.  La Voz De Aztlan focuses on the latter.

The May 2011 supplement contained a poem penned by a student titled “America.”  On a literal level, some of its language is, ahem, provocative.

A few snippets: “‘America the land robbed by the white savage,’ the ‘land of the biggest genocide,’ the ‘place of greed and slavery,’ the ‘rapist of earth,’ ‘America the place for institutionalized racism,’ the ‘land of the brute, the bully, the land of the glorified killers, the eater of souls,’ ‘America, where corporations are worthy more than babies,’ ‘America, where women give birth but not votes,’ ‘America the one who beat my cousins with bats for being brown,’ ‘America the killer of mothers and fathers,’ ‘America the willingly blind and proudly stupid.'”

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Neil O’Brien, a Fresno State senior at the time who had earned a rep as “a vocal critic of undocumented students,” objected to the poem.

As he argued in a Collegian op-ed, “There is no place on any university for hateful and racially-charged rhetoric such as the poem. . . . For those who missed his belligerent attack, I’d like to remind [the student poet] that as an American of Argentinian heritage, I do not agree with any of his claims, particularly that Americans are white savages, intolerant, and stupid.”

Along with the op-ed, O’Brien also approached a pair of professors with ties to the Collegian and La Voz De Aztlan.  He said he wanted to voice his concerns about its content and get answers about why it was allowed to appear in print.  He video recorded his brief encounters with them.  Hmm.

The professors called campus police.  Some internal proceedings commenced.  The conclusion: O’Brien’s actions were ruled “intimidating and harassing” and he was restricted in various ways from interacting with Fresno State faculty and from running for student government office.

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In November 2o12, as a counterattack, O’Brien sued, claiming the school violated his First Amendment and due process rights.  As the Student Press Law Center confirms in an excellent report on the whole shebang, a district court dismissed the lawsuit.  He is now appealing that ruling.

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O’Brien: “Why is your First Amendment right to write [the poem] OK, but my First Amendment right to disagree with it is not?”  In return, the school’s stance seems to be: It’s not your disagreement, but how you went about expressing it that was over the line.

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