Lawsuit Challenges California Speech Code

May 20, 2003

GLENDORA, CA—The latest battle in the campaign to free public universities from the scandal of unconstitutional speech codes began today at Citrus College. Chris Stevens, a student, is suing the College for restrictions on free expression that violate his First Amendment rights. The lawsuit, filed on May 20, 2003 by FIRE Legal Network attorney Carol A. Sobel in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, challenges Citrus’s “free speech areas.” “By quarantining free speech from the heart of campus, Citrus College shows contempt for both the ideals of higher education and the most essential values of a free society,” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The “free speech areas,” established in 2002, make more than 99% of the campus a censorship area. The policy allows free speech in three small remote areas of the campus. Speakers who express themselves outside of the designated areas actually are arrested, and students face suspension or expulsion merely for engaging in protected speech and activity.

The policy requires notification to the College Security Office not only of one’s intent to use “free speech areas,” but even the content of one’s message. No amplification equipment may be used. Use of the three areas is restricted to weekdays from 8am to 6pm, even though more than a third of students take evening classes between 4pm and 10pm. “Under this policy,” Lukianoff observed, “Citrus College forbids its students from holding a ‘Take Back the Night’ rally or from protesting in a timely way anything that occurs after dinner.”

Stevens directly experienced Citrus College’s censorship when he sought to hold a “Pro-America” rally and again when he sought to protest Governor Gray Davis’ education budget. Stevens was warned that, as an individual, he was limited to the “free speech areas.” According to the lawsuit, Arnold Rollin, associate dean of students, told Stevens that he would be arrested and expelled if he held any event outside of these areas. Citrus ignored Stevens’ petitions to modify the policy.

On November 13, 2002, several pro-life demonstrators were arrested for stepping outside the designated area. Rollin told the demonstrators in the censorship area that they were violating college policy because they were holding signs.

The policy also violates legal equality. Nineteen officially recognized groups have free speech rights denied to individual students and to “unrecognized” groups. Official groups, such as the “Cosmetology Club,” are allowed to hold events outside of the designated areas. The complaint alleges that a student may approach others anywhere on campus, hand out literature without permission, and use amplified sound to convey his message if he wants to talk about beauty treatments, but that these basic rights are denied if that same student (or another student) wishes to express his own opinion on fundamental political issues.

Other Citrus College policies that ban constitutionally protected expression on the entire campus may soon face legal challenges. Citrus prohibits “indecent” and “offensive…expression or language.” Its definition of sexual harassment includes “words…of a sexual nature.” “Don’t expect to see much great theater on this campus anytime soon,” said Lukianoff.

Citrus College also restricts freedom of written expression, including freedom of the press, on its campus. All posters, fliers, publications—even postcards announcing events—must have prior approval from the administration. The College bans any “publication”—including any letter sent through campus mail—that is “discriminatory.” It even requires that all banners “be made by a student-artist hired through the Student Affairs Office,” that the banner designs “be approved by the Student Affairs staff,” and that the banners “be requested no later than five days prior to the time they are needed.”

Earlier this year, Citrus College received intense scrutiny for another free speech issue. A professor gave extra credit to students who wrote letters to President Bush opposing the war in Iraq while withholding that credit from students with different views. When contacted by FIRE, Citrus College President Louis Zellers responded admirably, repudiating the professor’s actions and apologizing to President Bush for the letters. “Citrus College responded well when a professor discriminated unfairly on the basis of political views,” said FIRE’s Lukianoff. “We hope that it now will abandon these unconstitutional policies.”

“No college should want to quarantine, marginalize, or impose prior restraints against free speech,” Lukianoff noted, “and no public college has the legal right to do so. We are thrilled that Chris Stevens and Carol Sobel are defying campus censors. Citrus College must abandon its unreasonable restriction of protected speech to small, remote ‘areas,’ and it must put an end to its speech code.”

Stevens’s attorney, Carol A. Sobel, was associate director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1979 to 1985. She has participated in important challenges to restrictions on the rights to assemble and to demonstrate in California and is the author of numerous articles on free speech and civil liberties.

“Citrus College believes that it may take away rights that this country has guaranteed for over two hundred years,” said Chris Stevens. “On a college campus, speech should provoke more speech—not threats of punishment, expulsion, or arrest. Citrus College may continue to threaten me, but I will defend my constitutional rights.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education. The Citrus College speech codes and the lawsuit can be seen at www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org

Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org

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