Citrus College Never Learned Its Free-Speech Lessons: Editorial

December 10, 2014

Editorial at Whittier Daily News

Let the $110,000 Citrus College had to fork over this week to settle a free-speech lawsuit by a student be a lesson to other area colleges and schools: Stop abridging the First Amendment rights of those you teach.

Really. You are supposed to be teaching, among other things, about that crucial amendment to the Constitution along with the nine others that give Americans so many freedoms in so many ways.

Instead, what Citrus College administrators did by their actions was to give students a lesson in the way the First Amendment works. It’s that when you unfairly and illegally try to muzzle people, to keep them from talking — and no, we’re not dealing with someone crying “Fire!” in a movie theater here — there will be consequences.

Interestingly, and considering that young people are involved, we’re not even talking about questions of obscenity on a T-shirt or some questionable taunt across the campus quad here.

The free speech in question that caused Citrus to lose in court in such a major way involved current student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle’s claim that the school violated his constitutional rights when he was told he could not collect signatures outside the college’s “free speech area.”

Signatures. On a clip board. The way we are asked to every election season outside the supermarket doors. The college claimed that doing so was “harassment” of other students. There was no harassing involved. In fact, Sinapi-Riddle went out of his way to be polite. But perhaps he was doing so like a fox: He knew that what he was doing was going to invite scrutiny by the campus police.

That’s because, almost unbelievably, this is the second time in recent years that Citrus College has lost in court on the same issue. After it created an illegal campus “free speech zone” — as if exercising your rights was some dangerous habit on the order of smoking cigarettes — and then was told by a court that this was illegal, Citrus agreed to play by the constitutional rules.

Then, a few years later, it went back to its old ways.

But the conservative nonprofit FIRE — Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — was waiting for such a relapse, and it snared its Big Brother-style prey once again.

“Citrus College agreed to eliminate its restrictive ‘free speech zone’ in the face of a FIRE lawsuit back in 2003, but later reinstated its speech quarantine when it thought no one was watching,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in a statement. “But FIRE was watching, and we’ll continue to do so. If the speech codes come back again, so will we.”

As we said over the summer before the court case, the tiny zone reserved for speech is a courtyard outside the college library. In the guise of creating a nice space for discourse, the school in fact ghettoized the practice of engaging in the rough and tumble of political engagement. FIRE points out that the zone constitutes about 1.3 percent of the campus, an absurdity that makes a mockery of the speech being “free.”

So, what are we to think here about the possibilities of another relapse? We thought we had a rehabilitated institution on our hands, clean of the addiction to campus speech crackdowns it was clearly struggling with. Citrus went into rehab. Then, this. Trust is going to take a few more decades.

Schools: Citrus College Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Citrus College – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit Citrus College: Speech Code Litigation