More California College ‘Free Speech Zones’ Legally on Thin Ice; ‘Free Speech Lounge’ at Berkeley City College

By May 14, 2010

Yesterday FIRE announced in a press release that students and faculty members at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, are subject to an absurd and repressive "free speech patio" policy, and the school appears to be a stone’s throw away from a First Amendment lawsuit. (Speech codes and "free speech zones" like Southwestern’s consistently lose in court, as FIRE points out all the time.) 

Today I report on another four colleges in similar danger in California because of the planned restrictions on free speech instigated by the Peralta Community College District in the Oakland area. At Berkeley City College, for instance, free speech reportedly will be limited to a single "free speech lounge," and one attorney is already threatening to sue.

As Matt Krupnick reports for the Contra Costa Times (in an article already picked up by the San Jose Mercury News and The Oakland Tribune, and linked to in a heads-up post from the One Minute Lawyer blog):

The proposed rules … would limit speakers to the main quads at Laney, Merritt College and the College of Alameda, and to a student lounge at Berkeley City College. Speakers would be required to reserve the space at least three business days in advance, and all fliers posted on campus bulletin boards would need to include English translations.

Although the proposal notes that administrators may not prevent someone from speaking based on the subject of their speech, it prohibits "disruptive behavior" and the "open and persistent defiance of the authority" of college employees. It also would ban obscenity, profanity and amplification. [Emphasis added.]

These look like classic examples of unconstitutional policies with virtually no chance of surviving in court. Krupnick reports:

"This is an abomination," said Robert Bezemek, an attorney for the Peralta Federation of Teachers, which has threatened to sue if the policy is adopted. "This is a (policy) Martin Luther King would have violated the moment he spoke. For 270 years, the colleges of this country have been free-speech zones."

Peralta is only the latest district to consider the so-called free-speech zones, which have riled academics around the country.

Indeed, just as at Southwestern College, people around California are waking up to the fact that schools across the state are violating the fundamental right to free speech, and a groundswell of support is rising to fight back against these policies.

Krupnick also demonstrates that the impetus for these new policies is content-based and viewpoint-based in order to limit the speech of a specific group:

The Peralta guidelines are the result of a dispute with an anti-abortion group that has visited several East Bay colleges in the past two years, the district’s attorney, Thuy Nguyen, told a small group of students, professors and other employees at Oakland’s Laney College on Wednesday.

That’s the kind of evidence of viewpoint discrimination that does quite badly in court, I’d say. FIRE is on the case, as Krupnick also reports:

An estimated 70 percent of U.S. public colleges and universities restrict speech in some way, said Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has fought against free-speech zones around the country.

It would be unreasonable – and unconstitutional – for Peralta to require speakers to reserve time to express opinions, Creeley said.

Free-speech zones "do not allow students to express thoughts on the events of the day," he said. "Students have to be allowed to get together without registering in advance."

One might think that the Peralta Community College District would have learned some free speech lessons after the district recently settled a federal lawsuit involving students punished for praying on school property–to the tune of $90,000 in legal fees, as Krupnick reported last week.

Why is the Peralta Community College District so hostile to free speech, which ought to be a fundamental feature of the free marketplace of ideas, not something to be feared and repressed? FIRE will keep you updated on the latest free speech news here and at colleges across California.