Southwestern College’s New Freedom of Expression Policy Eliminates Unconstitutional ‘Free Speech Patio,’ But Problems Remain

By on September 29, 2011

Nearly two years after three faculty members at California’s Southwestern College (SWC) were suspended from campus for their presence at a peaceful campus demonstration, SWC has finally reformed its unconstitutional free speech policy. SWC’s Freedom of Expression policy previously had confined expression on campus to a tiny "free speech patio." Both FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLU-SD) submitted comments to SWC over the past two years regarding proposed revisions to the policy, and on September 13, SWC passed a new version of the policy stating that free speech will be subject only to content-neutral regulations and that public areas of the campus may be used without a reservation.

The troubles at SWC began on October 22, 2009, when a group of students and faculty members gathered in SWC’s designated free speech area, the aforementioned "free speech patio," to protest several policies and actions by the administration. Some of the students then decided to leave the area and protest near SWC’s main administrative buildings, but were prevented from doing so by police. That evening, four faculty members who had been present at the rally received hand-delivered letters from SWC notifying them that they had been suspended from the campus and placed on administrative leave. (The punishment for one was quickly reversed since she had not taken part in the protest.) Though they were eventually allowed back on the SWC campus, official reprimands were placed in their employee files.

FIRE wrote to then-SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra in November 2009, pointing out the gross injustice of disciplining faculty members simply for being present at a peaceful protest. FIRE noted that SWC’s actions violated decades of Supreme Court precedent emphasizing the importance of the First Amendment on college campuses. FIRE also called on SWC to reform its speech policies, which declared the entire 156-acre SWC campus a "non-public forum" with the exception of the grossly unconstitutional "free speech patio."

Though SWC convened a committee of students, faculty, and administrators to craft a new Freedom of Expression policy, significant constitutional problems remained with the proposed revisions. As the new policy languished, SWC’s unconstitutional policies remained in force as a continuing threat to First Amendment rights at SWC. Meanwhile, the damage done by Chopra to SWC’s reputation and morale plagued the campus. Press profiles highlighted Chopra’s bullying and authoritarian leadership. One faculty senate survey overwhelmingly graded his performance an "F." SWC was even placed on probation by its accreditors, citing a "culture of fear and intimidation" pervading the campus.

Chopra finally resigned under pressure in December 2010. Several of his apparent supporters on SWC’s Governing Board were subsequently voted out as well.

Now, finally, the efforts by FIRE and ACLU-SD to ensure the full reform of SWC’s unconstitutional speech policies have resulted in a new Freedom of Expression policy, approved on September 13. SWC’s revised policy (actually called "procedures") specifies that the exercise of free speech will be subject "only to the content-neutral regulations necessary to fulfill the mission and obligations of the College District," and that public areas of the campus may be used "without a reservation." Most notably, of course, the revisions mean that free speech at SWC will no longer be limited solely to the one patio. This is certainly a positive development for students and faculty at SWC wishing to exercise their free speech rights in various other public areas of the campus, and we are pleased that SWC has finally made this important change.

However, problems do remain with the policy. For example, the policy requires five days’ prior reservation for any parade or rally that crosses "pedestrian thoroughfares" or is "likely to stop or slow traffic." This is a significant impediment to the ability of SWC students and faculty to hold spontaneous and timely expressive activities, which often occur in response to immediate or still-unfolding events. Additionally, the revised policy states that SWC "has identified a number of areas for expressive activities which may be used without a reservation," but does not identify what those locations are. If SWC is making only small or remote, out-of-the way locations available for spontaneous speech, that too impedes students and faculty from effectively speaking out.

Because of these concerns, FIRE will be monitoring how SWC implements its new policy in order to ensure that the college truly respects the free speech of its students and faculty. We hope the policy revisions mark a new era at SWC.

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