As students prepare to express their opinions on variety of subjects this semester, previous incidents show speaking freely can lead to big trouble.
Estelle Esposito, a former SF State student, has given up hope for justice. After a year and a half of trying to find help from local newspapers, the Department of Education, Office of Federal Relations, CSU Foundation, San Francisco Bar Association and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Esposito found only disappointment.
“No one gives a damn about the incident which cost me my education, my rights, my name and face, as well as my piece of mind,” she said. “The civil rights attorneys turn me down because they say it is criminal. The criminal attorneys say it is civil.”
Esposito, 29 at the time, started attending SF State in fall 2002 as a transfer student, majoring in business. She was curious about the new campus and would skateboard with her backpack through its long cemented perimeter. But not even halfway through her first semester, she dropped out from school in fear, promising to never return.
Esposito got arrested and suspended from school after stepping on the stage and asking a question during a Muslim rally at the Free Speech area on Malcolm X Plaza. After she returned to campus, she became a target of harassment by fellow students who read the front page article in the October issue of Xpress and recognized her from the photo. Over a year later she is still trying to recover from this incident. She tells her story to the public for the first time.
On October 23, 2002, Esposito stopped by the Free Speech area on Malcolm X Plaza to listen to a “Understanding Islam” speech, a part of an informational rally held biannually by Student Muslim Association (MSA).
Esposito wanted to ask a question about the 72 virgins that, she heard, await men after death, a reference to the image of heaven in some Muslim religious traditions. She raised her hand trying to get the speaker to answer whether or not it was true. Her question was not answered and she was told to come back at a later time. Esposito left the plaza to study for her midterm. After she came back, the rally was still in progress. She stepped up on the stage and asked her question again: “Is it true when an Islamic man dies, 72 virgins greet him?”
The organizers of the event told her to leave the stage immediately. Esposito refused and said she wanted the speaker to reply. The speaker eventually said, “No, it is not true,” and Esposito left the stage to go to the library and continue studying for her midterm. When she got there, she was approached by the officers, searched, detained, and taken into custody by SF State police department.
There are many versions of what exactly happened, and some of the people involved are no longer around. Even the police officers do not describe the incident in sync.
“…in a threatening manner.”
Esposito claims that after she stepped on the first step of the stage and asked her question, the speaker and the “Muslim crowd became very angry. A group of male students grabbed me and yelled in my face,” she recalled.
Lt. Jun Takahashi responded to the scene after he heard over the police radio that a female dressed in black rode her skateboard up to the plaza and walked up onto the platform “disrupting the event.”
Takahashi confiscated Esposito's skateboard for alleged safety reasons and escorted her into custody. He stated in the police report that after Esposito was asked to leave the stage, she yelled, “Don't touch me!” and waved her arms in the air, “holding her skateboard in front of her body in a threatening manner.”
Esposito admits carrying a skateboard, but she insists she held it under her arm, as she always did when she could not ride it. She denies any allegations of a threat of any kind.
“In the past when I have asked someone about their religion, I have gotten a simple answer,” said Esposito. “People are usually delighted to inform you about their religion. I never would have believed that this would result from a question if I had not lived through it.”
Lt. Jerry Trobaugh, who was not involved in the arrest, told Xpress the day of the incident that Esposito was arrested and booked into San Francisco County Jail for “failing to provide her proper identification.” According to the police report, Esposito did provide officers with her student ID, but did not give her date of birth and address right away. The same police report stated that Esposito got arrested for disturbing the peace and resisting the arrest.
“When I told Esposito that she was under arrest and had to place her hands behind her back, Esposito said, “No! This is a democracy,” said Sgt. Todd Iriyama in the police report.
“I then grabbed Esposito's right arm and attempted to place it behind her back,” he continued. “Esposito immediately tried to break free from my control hold and became physically combative.”
“I was kicked to the ground, held down…even though I never struggled.”
But Esposito, who is 5'3? and 108 pounds, claims she never opposed.
“Both of these accusations were false as campus ID was taken and I never resisted against the two men who were twice my size,” said Esposito. “I was kicked to the ground, held down and hand cuffed by two officers even though I never struggled. I called for help from the other students, but was ignored.
She continued, “I can't believe I was stripped out of my civil rights in the middle of campus and there was no one there to help.”
Lt. Troubaugh, who is now retired but was recently asked for comments, did not wish to provide any explanations.
This article was first published in Golden Gate Xpress in March 2004. This is only an excerpt. Read full article here.