By Gary Warth at The San Diego Union Tribune
A free-speech advocacy group that recently settled lawsuits against two California schools has similar concerns with other state universities, including Cal State San Marcos, San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego.
While no lawsuits or specific complaints have been filed against those universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Philadelphia-based group has identified them as among many schools that have policies it identifies as vague and open to abuse.
“These policies a lot of times are well-intended, but they have the potential of chilling a lot of speech,” said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at FIRE.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan group has faulted colleges and universities around the country for having restrictive “free-speech zones” and rules intended to protect students from abuse, but instead punish some students for stating their beliefs.
The group’s stance has put it at odds with many schools that have missions to create safe campuses for all students through policies that address “hateful” behavior and speech. Some such policies, Harris said, can be abused because they are vague and open to interpretation.
Noting a UC San Diego policy prohibiting the distributing of fliers that are anti-Semitic or Islamophobic, for instance, Harris questioned who was defining those terms.
“In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, we frequently see both sides as ‘anti-Semitic’ or ‘Islamophobic,’” she said. “This type of policy could have a stifling effect on the university.”
While FIRE has sued 10 schools nationwide since it was founded in 1999, much of its work focuses on raising awareness of free-speech issues and advocating for policy changes.
Within the last nine months, the organization settled two lawsuits against California schools that had free-speech zones, which Harris said are unnecessarily restrictive.
Cal Poly Pomona agreed to a $35,000 settlement in July, ending a lawsuit filed by a student who was prohibited from distributing pamphlets about veganism beyond a free-speech zone.
FIRE also sued Citrus Community College in Los Angeles on behalf of another student who had been restricted to protesting within the campus’ free-speech zone. The case was settled for $110,000 in December.
Following the most recent settlement, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Stanislaus reportedly are reviewing or revising their policies regarding free-speech zones.
There are no plans to review free-speech guidelines, policies and practices on a system-wide level at California State University, said Laurie Weidner, assistant vice chancellor of public affairs in the CSU chancellor’s office.
Cal State San Marcos University also has no immediate plans to change its free-speech zone, said Cathy Baur, associate vice president for communications at CSUSM.
“While our existing policy has never deterred free speech on campus, we will, as we do with all policies, review it to ensure that it is still relevant and modify as needed,” Baur said.
The campus opened in 1990 and has had a free-speech zone since 1997.
Baur said the primary concern of the zone is to ensure any type of free speech activity doesn’t interfere with instruction, research or general operation of the campus.
While it makes sense for colleges to restrict protests that could disrupt research, block pedestrian traffic or harass people living in dorms, Harris said, the solution should not be to prohibit demonstrations at every location but one.
“The default should be that free speech is allowed on campus, not limit to one place,” she said.
Harris said FIRE has found about one in six out of 437 schools it surveyed have free-speech zones, which she said go too far in the name of keeping order on campus.
Of 29 California schools listed on its website as having free-speech concerns, 12 are classified as having serious concerns. The rest, including CSUSM, SDSU and UC San Diego, are identified as having moderate concerns.
All 10 University of California campuses are listed, with only UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz listed as having serious concerns. All California State University campuses have been on the list within the last two years.
To see how schools are rated by FIRE, visit
www.thefire.org and open the “Campus rights” then the “School ratings” sections.
Harris said all CSU and UC schools were listed because they follow system-wide policies that were vague and open to abuse. The three local schools also had their own policies that raised concerns for FIRE.
SDSU’s housing and residential education policy, for instance, prohibits abusive physical and verbal behaviors, threats of physical abuse, racial harassment and disruptive practical jokes. Violations can lead to eviction and criminal prosecution.
“’Verbal abuse’ is one of those policies that’s vague,” Harris said. “A ban on abusive and inappropriate language has been struck down (in court) as protected speech.”
Harris said the policy could apply to harassment or to an unpleasant tirade, and its vagueness makes its open for abuse. No one from SDSU was available to respond to Harris’ comment about the policy.
UC San Diego responded by stating the university is dedicated to upholding principles of free speech and expression.
“The university has always served as a forum for public debate and interaction on important public policy issues, and respects the rights of individuals to agree or disagree with opinions and stage peaceful forms of expression,” the university stated in an e-mail.
Harris said FIRE also has concerns with policies that address civility as an expectation of students. Following the group’s successful lawsuit over a policy at San Francisco State University in 2007, a requirement about civil behavior was moved from a list of student conduct requirements, which included grounds for discipline, to a section about university values.
“It’s fine to be aspirational,” Harris said about goals to create a civil environment. “But when it gets to ‘expect,’ then you get a chilling effect.”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the challenge of creating policies that address behavior and speech can be a slippery slope.
“These are some of the most complicated issues in the area of freedom of speech,” he said.
Scheer said most reasonable people would like to see highly offensive speech disappear from college campuses and from the world in general.
“The problem is, how do you do it?” he said.
Scheer said the First Amendment sets a very high bar for restricting speech, and anything that is protected in public probably is going to be protected on a public college campus as well.