New Board Vindicates First Amendment Rights at Southwestern College, Rescinds Punishment for ‘Free Speech Patio’ Protest

By on February 23, 2011

Three faculty members at Southwestern College (SWC) in Chula Vista, California, have had formal reprimands removed from their records, following a vote by the new Governing Board that vindicates their First Amendment rights. Last academic year, the three professors were banned from campus, placed on leave, and formally reprimanded because they had joined with students who had strayed beyond the college’s unconstitutional free speech zonea single patio.

Now that the reprimands have been lifted, Southwestern must complete its revisions of its unconstitutional protest policy as soon as possible. FIRE and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLU-SD) have been working with SWC to fully protect First Amendment rights in its protest policy.

The professors’ ordeal began on October 22, 2009, after a group of students and faculty members assembled in SWC’s "free speech zone" to protest various actions taken by the SWC administration. According to a professor who was in attendance, one of the students said, "Let’s go where they can hear us." When some of the protesters reached the courtyard where SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra’s office was located, they were met by police officers who would not let them pass. The three faculty members, who were with the group for different periods of time, and a fourth who was merely in the area, were placed on paid leave by former Acting Superintendent/President Nicholas C. A. Alioto and were banned from campus that night via letters hand-delivered to their off-campus homes. The faculty members also were banned "from using any District facilities, phone or email." (The fourth faculty member had the punishments lifted quickly, after asserting no involvement in the protest at all.)

FIRE wrote Chopra on November 3, 2009, explaining why both the "Freedom of Expression" policy and its application to the protesters were unconstitutional. In a November 25 response, SWC attorney Jonathan A. Pearl promised to "carefully consider the issues" raised by FIRE.

SWC convened an administrator-faculty-student committee to draft a new policy in January 2010. The committee announced a new proposed policy in April 2010, but both FIRE and ACLU-SD sent letters describing the constitutional problems in the new policy. ACLU-SD’s letter of May 7 identified several of these problems; FIRE’s letter of May 12 pointed out that the new policy not only threatened First Amendment liberties, but also would betray a public college’s function as a true marketplace of ideas. SWC has continued working on the policy with input from FIRE and ACLU-SD.

In November 2010, voters elected new Governing Board members. A month later, Raj Chopra resigned. Then, just two weeks ago, Nicholas Alioto resigned. Meanwhile, SWC remains on probation with its accreditor. As we wrote here a year ago, SWC’s accreditor had cited a "culture of fear and intimidation" at SWC, which had demoralized the campus.

It looks like a new era is dawning for Southwestern College. FIRE hopes that SWC successfully resolves the remaining issues in its free speech policies so that the campus can continue to move forward and put its days of censoring students and faculty far behind it.

Schools: Southwestern College Cases: Southwestern College: Professors Banned from Campus after Students Stray Beyond ‘Free Speech Patio’