Change Has Come to Southwestern College’s Governing Board; Will It Come to Southwestern’s Policies on Expression?

November 5, 2010

This week, elections at Southwestern College (SWC) in California brought some change to the composition of the college’s Governing Board. According to the blog Southwestern College Board Must Go!, candidates Norma Hernandez and Tim Nader defeated their respective incumbent opponents, and together with incumbent Nick Aguilar, now give the "pro-student" faction a majority on the Governing Board.

This is big news because as the blog’s website argues, the previous Board was responsible for a litany of problems seen at SWC. The website states in pertinent part:

SWC’s accreditation is at risk. This Governing Board has caused this. They have created an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness among the students and faculty. They have laid off faculty and employees. They have lied about it. They have slashed classes – students are unable to take core classes.

SWC has an incompetent president and corrupt vice presidents. The public can’t fire these administrators, but we can fire the Board that hired them.

Of course, Torch readers will remember that that "incompetent president," Raj K. Chopra, was at the center of a memorable case last fall in which three faculty members were banned from campus and placed on immediate administrative leave. The professors’ crime was being seen with students at a peaceful protest about state budget cuts that were to eliminate 400 of the school’s courses. After straining to spread their message from within SWC’s unconstitutional free speech patio, the protesting group decided to move to a more visible and audible location on campus in order to more directly express their concerns and criticisms to Chopra, and the professors joined the group for different portions of the protest.

While taking the protest outside the confines of the patio would strike fans of the First Amendment as a reasonable and understandable move, SWC didn’t see it that way. Later that same evening, the professors received hand-delivered letters written by Chopra himself at their off-campus homes, informing them that they were banned from campus effective immediately and were not to use campus e-mail or other resources.

Under pressure from FIRE, SWC soon overturned the unjust punishments against the three faculty members. However, it maintained the unconstitutional free speech patio, which has been rightly lampooned near and far as among the worst free speech zones seen on a college campus. The SWC administration’s stubborn refusal to respect the freedom of speech on its public campus has thus subjected the whole school to widespread ridicule and criticism.

It seems that the free speech controversy, on top of the budgetary concerns and questions about administrative leadership, is perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to the viability of the incumbent candidates for Governing Board. The SWC community deserves better and more accountable leadershipleadership that addresses, among the problems facing SWC, the restrictions on expression and campus dialogue currently ensconced in college policy.

FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLU-SD) have been monitoring for nearly a year now the efforts of SWC to revise its policy on campus expression. Indeed, as early as November 25 of last year, SWC attorney Jonathan A. Pearl promised in a letter to "carefully consider the issues" raised by FIRE and ACLU-SD regarding SWC’s "Freedom of Expression" policy. SWC subsequently convened a committee of administrators, faculty, and students to draft a new policy, and in April 2010 announced a new proposed policy. However, the proposed policy substantially failed to uphold the First Amendment as required pursuant to SWC’s legal obligations as a public college, as both FIRE and ACLU-SD made clear to the college in separate letters.

It was discouraging that SWC couldn’t come up with adequate revisions to its Freedom of Expression policy despite taking five months to draft a replacement. But FIRE and ACLU-SD remained patient with the school’s efforts. So it was even more disappointing that SWC’s second proposed policy, finished in late October, failed to improve the first draft, or to address FIRE’s concerns. The latest draft still restricts and burdens campus speech in a number of ways, as you can read in ACLU-SD’s letter sent to SWC on October 27. FIRE shares ACLU-SD’s assessment of the proposed policy.

To be sure, we appreciate the hard work done by members of the Faculty Senate and others on the policy. But we wonder how much more time SWC could possibly need to revise fundamental First Amendment flaws in its policy, and to enact a policy that respects students’ and professors’ free speech rights to the extent required by the law. It’s frustrating that a year after SWC was publicly chastised for its response to the student and faculty protest, the free speech zone remains in place.

So I view this week’s election results with measured optimism. I hope the change in leadership leads to real results in SWC’s efforts to correct its First Amendment mistakes. Time may be running out on SWC’s chances to do so, and the college may soon be facing a First Amendment lawsuit if it does not shape up.

Schools:  Southwestern College

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