The trouble began at an Oct. 17 anti-terrorism rally in which the students stepped on butcher paper painted to resemble the flags of the Middle East terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. The College Republicans say they simply copied the script from an image on the Internet and didn't know it bore the name of Allah in Arabic script.
University spokeswoman Ellen Griffin, however, told San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders the university "stands behind this process" of investigating the students for possible punishment.
"I don't believe the complaint is about the desecration of the flag," Griffin said. "I believe that the complaint is the desecration of Allah."
The university has 10 days from the time of the hearing to decide whether to sanction the students.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which represents the students, insisted the school has no basis for punishing them.
"The College Republicans engaged in unequivocally protected political expression, and it strains all credibility to think the SFSU administration does not know this," he said. "There is nothing to try or investigate here other than protected expression."
Ten days after the incident, a student filed a formal complaint with the university against the campus group, alleging "attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment" and "actions of incivility."
FIRE argues the university's Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development could have settled the matter informally or dismissed the charges instead of pressing forward today with a hearing.
The legal advocacy group sent a letter to SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan Jan. 23 arguing no American public institution can lawfully prosecute students for engaging in political protest or for desecrating religious symbols.
FIRE asserted "incitement" and creating a "hostile environment" are legal terms not applicable to the College Republicans' actions of stepping on flags.
"SFSU has a duty to uphold the First Amendment rights of all of its students, even if their expressive activity offends the religious sensibilities of some," the letter stated.
University officials wrote back Jan. 29, saying the school would continue to investigate the complaint "to give all parties the confidence that they will be heard and fairly treated by a panel that includes representatives of all the university's key constituencies."
A follow-up letter by FIRE urged Corrigan to call off the hearing, warning "if you continue to ignore your constitutional obligations, you risk personal liability for depriving your students of their rights."
"This is not even a close call, legally speaking," FIRE Vice President Robert L. Shibley contended. "The First Amendment protects using or destroying flags in political protest, and even SFSU administrators must realize that they cannot prosecute students for failing to respect a religious symbol."