This Month in FIRE History: Speech Code Falls at Citrus College

By June 19, 2012

Last week, United States District Judge Timothy S. Black held that the University of Cincinnati’s (UC’s) "free speech zone" policy "violates the First Amendment and cannot stand." This victory came after FIRE helped coordinate a federal lawsuit in cooperation with Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law on behalf of UC’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a campus group that had its First Amendment rights suppressed while attempting to gather signatures for a statewide petition.

This was not FIRE’s first such victory, however. Almost nine years ago to the day, FIRE announced the first victory of our Speech Code Litigation Project, which at the time was only a few months old. In that case, FIRE helped organize a lawsuit on behalf of Chris Stevens, a student at Citrus College in California, who wished to challenge two campus policies that quarantined free speech to three small and remote areas of campus. Chris was aided by FIRE Legal Network member Carol Sobel, who filed the lawsuit on his behalf. 

Like the policies deemed unconstitutional at UC, the policies at Citrus College allowed for students to be suspended, arrested, or even expelled if found exercising their rights outside of the areas deemed appropriate by the administration. Citrus also required a registration process not unlike the one at UC. However, Citrus College’s policy stopped short of explicitly mandating that students register their expressive activities a full ten working days ahead of time, as the policy at UC so unabashedly did.

In other ways, though, Citrus College’s policies went beyond even those maintained by UC, which had some of the most restrictive policies FIRE has seen. In addition to the policies Citrus College and UC had in common, Citrus also prevented the use of any sound amplification whatsoever, and specified that the "free speech areas" could only be used on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., despite the fact that more than a third of students had classes between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Thankfully, the "free speech area" situation was resolved on June 5, 2003, when the Citrus College Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution revoking the policies. The board also revoked an additional policy that, while not part of the lawsuit, had been identified by FIRE as troublesome. That policy broadly banned "offensive … expression or language."

Unfortunately, though, this speech code victory did not make Citrus College a "green light" school. It still maintained other policies that chilled students’ expressive rights, including a harassment policy that remains in effect to this day and broadly defines actionable sexual harassment as "[u]nwanted verbal sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature."

Since this victory at Citrus College, FIRE has won seven cases through the Speech Code Litigation Project, which supports precedent-setting litigation in defense of the First Amendment on public university campuses.

But not all FIRE cases require lawsuits to achieve a victory for student rights. Often FIRE wins cases through public advocacy in partnership with students on the ground and other organizations, as was the case at the University of Nevada at Reno (UNR). 

Six years ago this month, student activists, working with FIRE and the ACLU of Nevada, challenged a university policy that designated only four small or remote areas on UNR’s campus as "public forum areas." Spaces outside of these areas were considered non-public fora. 

Thankfully, after the coalition of students and free speech advocates proposed a new policy to the administration that would open up more of the campus to free speech, UNR administrators were quick to approve the policy and put it into effect.

As you can see, FIRE counts the month of June as one of its best for victories against unconstitutional "free speech zones," and we hope that track record continues as we move forward in our fight to make campuses freer and more welcoming places for student speech.

Schools: Citrus College University of Nevada, Reno University of Cincinnati