Free Speech Chilled at Santa Rosa Junior College: Administration Threatens Those Who Use Its Initials in Private E-mail Addresses and Domain Names

By July 20, 2009

As we stated in today’s press release, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) has failed to lift an unconstitutional ban on "unofficial" use of the initials "SRJC" in private e-mail addresses and website domain names, chilling the expression of students and faculty. After a faculty member came to FIRE for help, FIRE asked SRJC to lift its overbroad ban and to clarify the First Amendment rights of SRJC community members. SRJC, however, has told FIRE it intends to continue with its unconstitutional efforts to ban unofficial use of the college’s name, demonstrating a profound and mystifying ignorance of the First Amendment.

SRJC is conflating speech that claims to be on the college’s behalf with purely private speechwith chilling results. On May 5, Vice President of Academic Affairs/Assistant Superintendent Mary Kay Rudolph e-mailed faculty members and other SRJC community members a notice claiming that any "use of ‘Santa Rosa Junior College’ or any abbreviation of the college name" is a violation of California Education Code 72000(b)(4). The code prohibits, among other activities, speech that implies the college’s official endorsement (without prior permission). However, Rudolph stated in the e-mail that any unapproved use of "SRJC" was illegal, that violators would be commanded to "immediately cease using Santa Rosa Junior College or SRJC in their domain name or e-mail addresses," and that "failure to comply could result in legal action."

Threatening legal action against protected speech or telling people that it is illegal is unconstitutional, though this seems not to have bothered SRJC President Robert Agrella. Indeed, in a May 8 article on the ban in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Agrella noted that SRJC has been threatening so-called violators throughout his 19 years as president.

FIRE wrote to SRJC President Robert Agrella on July 1, pointing out that SRJC’s ban was unconstitutionally overbroad and a misinterpretation of the California Education Code, which only may prohibit unauthorized speech made in the name of the college, or expression that reasonably may be confused with such speech. Pointing out the absurdity of trying to enforce SRJC’s mistaken reading of the Code, FIRE noted that the ban "appears to be enforced broadly and without any investigation beyond the mere use of the letters ‘SRJC.’" FIRE also wrote about the policy that day in The Torch, given that the case was already public.

Unfortunately, President Agrella’s July 16 response to FIRE signally failed to grasp the unconstitutionality of SRJC’s ban. Agrella’s short reply stated that "there is no ban on the part of the college," ignoring the fact that dozens of community members had already been commanded to comply or else fear legal action and that Agrella had told the Press Democrat that SRJC would continue its efforts to stop the use of the SRJC name in private e-mail addresses. Agrella added that "it is not our intent to pursue individual cases through legal means," despite his college’s explicit threat that failure to comply with the ban "could result in legal action."

Agrella’s response takes the ban a step further, in fact. He wrote that the point was "to stop unofficial use of the college’s name"apparently everywhere, not just in domain names and e-mail addresses. Talk about unconstitutionally overbroad! To be fair, he also wrote that SRJC’s concern is "over misrepresentation of the college in privately used domain names," but even that statement goes much too far. Only a misrepresentation that might confuse reasonable people regarding whether the website is an official SRJC website would be an actionable misrepresentation. "SRJC-hates-me.org," for instance, would be a perfectly lawful, yet unofficial use of the college’s name.

In light of the administration’s disregard for the Constitution, the SRJC community has no reason to feel safe engaging in speech that SRJC has branded as illegal. The SJRC ban has declared that purely political speechfor instance, a domain name like "SRJC-tried-to-chill-our-speech.org," is off-limits. We need not resort to hypothetical examples here, however; ask most, if not all, of the 100 or so people who were threatened by being told that their personal speech was illegal.

Unless and until SRJC revokes this policy and clarifies to the community what the California Education Code actually does and does not ban, protected speech will remain chilled in Santa Rosa. Let President Robert Agrella know what you think by contacting him at ragrella@santarosa.edu or at 707-527-4431. Better yet, contact Jack Scott, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges Systemwhich was just dealt the setback of having the speech code of its Los Angeles Community College District thrown out in court. You can reach Jack Scott at jscott@cccco.edu or 916-322-4005.

Schools: Santa Rosa Junior College Cases: Santa Rosa Junior College: Overbroad Ban on “Unofficial” Use of College’s Initials