Report Shows 70% of California Public Universities Violate Free Speech Laws

By December 8, 2009

While California may lead the nation in providing legal protections for student speech rights, a report released today showed nearly 70 percent of our public universities are violating state law or the US Constitution through policies restricting free expression. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) conducted a rigorous study of restrictions on speech at America’s colleges and universities.  Within California, ten California State University campuses and five University of California campuses received a "red light" rating, meaning the schools have at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech in violation of law.

"It is certainly disheartening that rather than serving as public forums of free expression, many of our public universities are restricting speech and violating state law and the Constitution," said Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco).  "This report clearly highlights the need to continue our efforts in protecting student speech rights and prohibiting retaliation against students, faculty and workers."

"Shockingly, FIRE’s research demonstrates that a majority of California’s public universities are restricting student speech protected by both the Constitution and state law," said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy.  "If challenged in court, these policies will fall. The fifteen UC and CSU campuses earning a ‘red light’ rating from FIRE should consider themselves on notice."

Yee has authored two laws to protect such rights at California campuses.  AB 2581 (2006) made California the first state in the nation to specifically prohibit censorship of college student press and explicitly granted free speech rights to students.  SB 1370 (2008) further protects school employees from retaliation for assisting students in exercising such speech rights.

One of the more egregious violations has taken place at Southwestern College, a community college in Chula Vista.  Campus administrators deemed the entire public campus a censorship zone except for a narrowly defined area referred to by FIRE as a "free speech patio."  FIRE has referred to the policy as "utterly indefensible." 

San Francisco State University also had policies that attempted to restrict student speech activity to narrowly defined "public forum areas," as well as prohibited distribution of literature to the "Student Union Plaza behind the blue lines marked on the pavement" and  required students to "obtain authorization from the Student Activities Office."

Earlier this year, a student club at UC Berkeley faced a $3,200 security fee to host a controversial speech about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In clear violation of a Supreme Court decision, students were told that uniformed officers would be required for the event because of the subject matter of the presentation.  As a result of public criticism and possible legal action, university officials withdrew the unlawful security fee.

To read the full report titled "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2010: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses," visit www.thefire.org.  FIRE works to protect fundamental rights on campus including the freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality.

For his efforts to protect student speech rights, Senator Yee has been honored with several awards including the Freedom of Information Award by the California Newspaper Publishers Association; Distinguished Service to Journalism Education Award by the Journalism Association of Community Colleges; Champion of Journalism Education Award by the California Journalism Education Coalition; Beacon Award by the First Amendment Coalition; and the Friend of Scholastic Journalism Award by the Journalism Education Association