Opinion

Will Creeley: On free speech, Citrus College a slow learner

When it comes to free speech, Citrus College is a slow learner. A decade after paying thousands of dollars to end one First Amendment lawsuit, it now faces another.

On Sept. 17, 2013, Citrus College student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle was gathering signatures on campus for a petition protesting the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens. Vinny’s decision to advocate for civil liberties on that date was no accident; Sept. 17 is Constitution Day.

But Vinny soon found out that Citrus College doesn’t much care for the Bill of Rights. After striking up a conversation with a fellow student while taking a break on that hot day, he was threatened by a college administrator with immediate removal from campus. Why? Vinny had dared to seek a petition signature outside the college’s “free speech area.”

You read that right: A public college student was told he’d be kicked off his own campus simply for talking to his peers about the issues of the day.

Shockingly, this was no administrative error. It’s Citrus College policy. When any of the more than 12,000 students at Citrus College want to speak their mind, they’re confined to a tiny area that comprises just 1.37 percent of campus. The college flatly declares the rest of its grounds a “non-public forum.”

And Citrus College wasn’t the only public college in California silencing students on Constitution Day 2013. At Modesto Junior College, student Robert Van Tuinen was forbidden to hand out copies of the Constitution to students outside of that college’s equally tiny free speech zone.

Robert didn’t take his college’s censorship sitting down. With the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the free speech watchdog organization where I work, and attorneys from the national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, Robert filed a civil rights lawsuit and won a $50,000 settlement. Even more importantly, Modesto Junior College agreed to abolish its free speech zone. Now students can exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of being silenced.

On Tuesday, Vinny followed Robert’s lead, standing up for his right to free speech by filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Citrus College’s free speech area.

In ruling after ruling, judges from the Supreme Court on down have held that First Amendment rights are of special importance at our nation’s public colleges. So Citrus College should prepare to face the consequences of ignoring the law – again.

The last time the college was sued by a student over its free speech zone, in 2003, Citrus settled the case and agreed to pay the student plaintiff $24,000 and to revise its policy.

But in a stunning display of hubris (or incompetence), the school decided to resuscitate its free speech zone, instituting a policy almost identical to the one it abandoned under legal pressure. Now, eleven years later, Citrus College’s disdain for the First Amendment will again cost California taxpayers. History has repeated itself, and Citrus’s malfeasance is both farce and tragedy.

If it seems ridiculous that it takes lawsuits to open up public college campuses to free speech – in California, of all states, home of the student free speech movement – that’s because it is. The law couldn’t be clearer: Students at public colleges enjoy full First Amendment rights. Speech should be most free on public campuses, where our nation’s best and brightest debate ideas in the search for truth to the betterment of us all.

But at far too many campuses both in California and nationwide, the First Amendment takes a back seat to risk management and a misguided desire to prevent students from encountering expression with which they might disagree. FIRE’s research demonstrates that 58 percent of our nation’s largest and most prestigious institutions maintain speech codes that restrict student speech.

These policies are a national scandal, teaching students the wrong lesson about their rights and our democracy. So courageous students like Vinny are working with FIRE to take action. On Tuesday, Vinny was joined by students and faculty from Iowa State University, Chicago State University, and Ohio University, all of whom filed First Amendment suits against their institutions. The lawsuits will continue until the speech codes disappear.

It’s long past time to let colleges like Citrus know once and for all that the First Amendment isn’t optional.

Will Creeley is the Director of Legal and Public Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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