By Beau Yarbrough at LA Daily News
POMONA >> Cal Poly Pomona has settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of a student handing out animal-rights literature on campus.
“I’m glad that Cal Poly was able to reach agreement fairly quickly,” said Nicolas Tomas. “I think had they reached out to their counsel when I reached out to their administrators before, we could have settled this before, but I feel like they kind of ran wild with their policies with no constitutional basis.”
In the settlement, reached Thursday, Cal Poly agreed to revise its policies and pay Tomas $35,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.
Earlier this year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a nonprofit that fights speech restrictions at campuses around the country, sued on Tomas’ behalf in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
The 24-year-old nutrition major had been handing out Vegan Outreach pamphlets advocating the vegan lifestyle and attacking the treatment of farm animals since fall 2013. According to Tomas, he mostly worked the sidewalks between the university’s parking garage and the main campus, reasoning that was where he would see most of those coming or going from campus.
But administrators and, eventually, campus police objected, telling him he had to restrict his activities to a 154 square-foot “free speech zone” — a little triangle of grass between the university library and student center — and wear a badge, signed by a university administrator, declaring that he had permission to be there.
FIRE attacked the policy as a “deprivation of fundamental rights” and sued the university on March 31.Cal Poly suspended its free-speech zone policy in early May.
“We want to be absolutely clear on this issue: Cal Poly Pomona cares deeply about free speech,” Rebecca Gutierrez Keeton, acting vice president for student affairs, is quoted as saying in a news release issued Thursday by the university. “It is essential to our mission as a learning-centered university and a vital part of a vibrant campus culture. A free marketplace of ideas helps our students grow as well-informed and confident individuals.”
Campus police and administrators who told Tomas he had to have a permit on campus were “mistaken,” according to the university. Officials have said they will work to better train police and staff on free-speech issues.
Cal Poly’s Presidential Order on the Use of University Buildings, Facilities or Grounds has been reworded to be “unequivocal” on students’ rights to free expression. Students will no longer be required to wear badges nor seek approval from administrators for “expressive activities,” according to the updated order.
The California State University’s “Free Speech Handbook” argues against the creation of “free speech zones,” but back in April, Laurie Weidner, spokeswoman for the CSU system, said many campuses had free-speech zone policies in place. As of Thursday afternoon, she was not aware of any communication from the Chancellor’s Office to the individual campuses about this issue.
FIRE’s lawsuit was part of an ongoing project against public colleges and universities that have similarly restricted student and faculty speech rights. The organization has been involved in 10 such lawsuits so far, and Thursday’s settlement is the sixth victory for the organization in a row, according to a news release issued by the organization.
“The day of the free speech zone on college campuses is over,” Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE associate director of litigation, is quoted as saying in the news release. “This is the fourth free speech zone that has been abolished as the result of a Stand Up For Speech lawsuit, and two more are being challenged in ongoing litigation. One in six schools may have free speech zones now, but when FIRE’s done, it will be zero.”
In December, FIRE won a $110,000 payment from Citrus College after a student at the Glendora school sued over the campus’ free-speech area policy. The college settled the case and agreed to expand its zone to most areas on campus and to change procedures to make it easier to speak on campus.
“It’s unfortunate that FIRE leaped straight into legal action without giving us a chance to collaborate with them on finding a solution,” Gutierrez Keeton was quoted as saying in Cal Poly Pomona’s Thursday news release. “This issue represents money taken right out of the pocket of our students — money that could have been better served benefitting their education.”
In addition to helping file lawsuits, FIRE has also helped pass legislation against free-speech zone policies, including laws banning the zones in Virginia and Missouri.
As for Tomas, expect to see him distributing fliers at Cal Poly when classes resume in September.
“I’m definitely going to again,” he said. “It’s a great way for me to reach out with my message.”