Merced College Students Push To Expand “Free Speech Zone” Campuswide

March 20, 2015

By Thaddeus Miller at Merced Sun-Star

Students at Merced College say they intend to hound the administration until it expands the campus’s “free speech zone,” a topic that has led to litigation at other California community colleges.

The campus club Students for Liberty has in recent months intensified its push to change the college’s policies related to the free speech zone, what is generally regarded as the school’s quad. The group says all open spaces on campus should be treated as a free speech zone.

Chris Vitelli, the college’s vice president for student services, said the Merced Community College District has identified the quads on the main campus and at the Los Banos campus, as public forums. He said those areas are centrally located and the majority of students pass through them on any given day.

He said the college doesn’t necessarily make anyone move a demonstration or debate to the quad. “As long as it’s peaceful and not disruptive, there really isn’t a zone (where) our campus police would prohibit free speech,” he said. “That’s never been the stance of the district.”

That’s not good enough, according to Nicholas Mejia, the president of Students for Liberty. He thinks the college needs to specifically lay out in its policy that speech is protected campuswide.

“If they don’t enforce it, then they shouldn’t have a problem changing it,” the 25-year-old said. “It’s ripe for abuse.”

Mejia, who is also a Marine Corps veteran, said he believes there’s a good chance the club will get its way. He said he expects to be able to pitch a new policy next month to the college’s board of trustees, which makes such decisions.

He said he’s determined to see a change made because he’s afraid the subject could fall by the wayside or the college could appear to make a change that really has no effect.

Free speech on college campuses has been a high-profile topic in recent years. Modesto Junior College settled a free speech lawsuit last year. The college made changes to its free speech policy and paid $50,000 to a student.

Citrus College, a community college in Los Angeles, settled a similar lawsuit last year. It also made changes to its free speech policy and paid a settlement of $110,000.

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education advised the students who brought those lawsuits against the colleges. The group has also had some contact with the club pushing for change at Merced College, said Azhar Majeed, the director of the nonprofit’s Individual Rights Education Program.

“We try to work amicably and proactively with schools on their policies and on their practices,” he said.

About 1 in 6 colleges have an area designated as a free speech zone, according to Majeed. Other schools do not identify a particular zone in their policies. UC Merced’s policy, for example, says all outdoor areas are open to free speech, according to university officials.

“The case law makes clear that restricting student expression to a small or remote part of campus is too restrictive,” Majeed said

The Associated Students of Merced College, the school’s student government, voted to officially support a change to college policy, according to President Cody Camacho. “As long as it’s an open area and we’re not interrupting any classes, we should be able to exercise our free speech rights anywhere on campus,” he said.

Vitelli said Merced College periodically reviews all of its policies and has begun to do so with those related to a free speech zone on campus. He said leaders are looking at the policies at other colleges to determine what, if any, changes are necessary.

“We would not want to, as an institution of higher education, limit someone’s expression of free speech,” he said.

Schools: University of California-Merced