Note: this article is a repost from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. It erroneously states that the Ohio State University is subject to a free speech lawsuit. The school is in fact Ohio University.
By Jason Henry at San Gabriel Valley Tribune
GLENDORA >> A national organization focused on free speech rights for students named Glendora-based Citrus College and three Midwest universities in four lawsuits filed on behalf of students who claimed their constitutional rights were violated.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched the lawsuits in collaboration with students and faculty at Citrus College, Ohio State, Iowa State and Chicago State universities as part of a project targeting unconstitutional speech codes at colleges and universities.
“When we decided we wanted to take on college speech codes all together, we picked some colleges with some of the worst speech codes and worked with the students that we knew to bring challenges to their codes,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of FIRE. “Citrus College is one of the worst when it comes to free speech zones.”
A complaint on behalf of Citrus College student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, of West Covina, was filed after Sinapi-Riddle was told he’d be removed from campus if he kept collecting signatures outside of the college’s designated “free speech area,” according to FIRE. Sinapi-Riddle, the president of the Citrus College chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, claimed he was threatened with ejection when he stopped to talk to another student about the petition while walking to the student center.
Citrus College’s policy states the college is a “non-public forum” and that the only exception is in a courtyard south of Hayden Library. The space makes up roughly 1.3 percent of the college’s campus.
“What is so offensive about speech zones is that it tells students that they’re not able or they’re not allowed to engage in their constitutional rights on 98 percent of the campus,” Shibley said.
Previously, Citrus College agreed to abolish its free speech area in 2003 after FIRE tried to take it to court on behalf of student Christopher Stevens. However, the college reinstated the policy in 2013, according to the complaint.
“Citrus College also has adopted and enforces other regulations that severely limit free speech, including a policy that requires student organizations to get approval before they may hold or publicize events, and a vague and standardless anti-’harassment’ policy that enables officials to punish any speech deemed ‘inappropriate or offensive,’” the complaint states.
The need to sue Citrus College a second time for the same violation makes it one of worst offenders when it comes to restrictive speech policies, Shibley said.
Officials at Citrus College did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
FIRE estimates 58 percent of public campuses have restrictive codes related to free speech.
At Iowa State University, students sued over censorship of marijuana reform t-shirts. The lawsuits for the other three universities named Tuesday dealt with censorship of students and faculty, including two professors at Chicago State that claimed they faced intimidation for a blog about campus corruption.
“The law is very much on the side of the students and we want to make that point to the other colleges out there that maintain these indefensible codes,” Shibley said.
Shibley and FIRE hope the universities will choose to eliminate their codes voluntarily, but the organization is prepared to take the fight to court.
“We’re prepared to go to a jury and take it to the circuit court and even to the Supreme Court if necessary,” Shibley said.
Schools: Chicago State University Citrus College Ohio University Iowa State University Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Citrus College – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit Chicago State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit Iowa State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit Ohio University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit