Free-speech group to seek review of new community-college rules

May 21, 2012

New rules governing free speech on Seattle Community College campuses contain far fewer restrictions than an earlier proposal, but some faculty members and students still believe the rules violate the First Amendment.

The newly formed Faculty for Free Speech will petition the state Attorney General’s Office for a legal analysis and review of the rule, said faculty member Laurel Holliday, who is a member of the free-speech group. The community-college district’s board of trustees passed the new rules Thursday.

At issue is a change to the administrative code that governs free speech on North, Central and South Seattle Community College campuses.

An earlier draft would have restricted the locations of protests and the size and number of signs, among other things. The rule proposal drew hundreds of faculty and students to speak out in opposition.

The rule that passed doesn’t include those restrictions, but it contains a trespassing section that allows campus security to remove nonstudents who are being disruptive, limits free speech to the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and prohibits camping.

Seattle Community College District Chancellor Jill Wakefield said the district responded to faculty and student concerns by paring down the rules and focusing on prohibiting camping. As part of that, the colleges needed to establish hours of operation, as well as due-process rules for anyone charged with trespassing, she said.

Holliday said faculty and students believe the trespassing section makes it too easy for protesters to be expelled from campus for vaguely defined reasons and that the 10 p.m. ending time for protests, especially for Seattle Central Community College’s urban campus, is too early.

The central campus’ student council opposed the measure, as did the American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents faculty members in the Seattle Community College District.

Seattle Central’s Capitol Hill campus played host to Occupy Seattle for two months last fall. The rule change is not in reaction to Occupy Seattle, college administrators have said, but rather to an incident in which students complained that they felt harassed by supporters of political candidate Lyndon LaRouche.

Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit education foundation based in Philadelphia, called restrictive speech codes "a major problem on America’s college campuses." He said speech codes have become less restrictive in recent years, not more so, but that there’s a lot of variation from campus to campus.

Shibley said the Occupy Wall Street movement drew very different reactions from schools around the country. "Some have really allowed encampments to proceed pretty much without interference, others have made compromises and some have eliminated them completely," he said.

In Seattle, the "no camping" clause would effectively prevent another Occupy encampment from using the district’s campuses.

"The First Amendment is a lot more than Occupy’s campout last fall," Seattle Central English teacher Jeb Wyman told the trustees Thursday in prepared remarks. "It’s candlelight vigils for John T. Williams or Trayvon Martin. It’s mothers pricking our consciences when their sons and daughters are shipped out to the next war. It’s Shakespeare on the South Lawn. It is part of campus life and has been for 46 years."

Seattle attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who is representing the faculty, sent a letter to the trustees describing the revised rule and other procedures already in place as unconstitutional restrictions of free speech.

Earl-Hubbard also said she believed the board has violated the state’s administrative proceedings and open public-meetings acts, "and thus any regulation or action taken as a result of these flawed procedures will be subject to immediate legal challenge to declare the action null and void."

Wakefield said the trustees received the letter an hour before the vote but "didn’t see anything that would cause us to make a different decision."