Stop Zoning Free Speech at Citrus College: Editorial

July 10, 2014

At Los Angeles Daily News

Thank goodness for zealots when it comes to defending fundamental American rights such as that of free speech.

That’s because it takes purists sometimes to be able to stand up for our constitutional right to express our opinions. When those opinions are offensive to many or even to a few, the tendency especially of institutions in our society is to clamp down rather than to open up.

But, in that memorable phrase from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” No matter that what constitutes extremism often is a matter of whose ox is being gored. A strong defense of liberty can come from everywhere in the American political spectrum, which is why the kind of sharply divided Supreme Court we have today can issue a 9-0 ruling unanimously agreeing that the creation of a 35-foot “buffer zone” around health clinics providing abortion is wrong.

Dig just a tiny bit deeper into the justices’ reasoning and you will find huge differences between them, as some don’t believe in buffer zones between protesters and patients at all, whereas some just think 35 feet is too far.

It is most interesting, and a matter that ought to give liberals pause, that usually in American politics it is conservatives who are the most ardent defenders of free speech. That is often the case in the causes taken on by the nonprofit FIRE — Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — including its most recent crusade here in Southern California, which has resulted in a lawsuit against Citrus College in Glendora.

Citrus, a community college, like many campuses across the country has established a “free speech zone” in which political proselytizers can do their thing. The zone is a courtyard outside the college library. In the guise of creating a nice space for discourse, the school has 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.”

The worst part is that FIRE in 2003 forced Citrus to abolish the zone under threat of suit. Just 10 years later, the college went back on its word and re-established it. Clearly with intent of testing the administration, Citrus student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle tried to collect signatures on a petition dealing with NSA intrusion on Americans’ privacy. Sinapi-Riddle, the president of the Citrus College chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, says he was threatened with ejection from the grounds when he stopped to talk to another student about the petition while walking to the student center.

Using cracked logic for a taxpayer-funded public college, the administration claims that 98 percent of its campus is a “non-public forum” and that speech is therefore only truly free in the little “zone.” This is not the kind of argument that is going to stand up under constitutional scrutiny.

Yet 59 percent of the American campuses FIRE has looked at have such zones. We’re glad that the group takes on the good fight, teaching about the First Amendment for students who are at such an impressionable age. Reasonable people will continue to disagree about some of FIRE’s other campus fights, including the defense of what some would call hate speech and sexually charged words that amount to harassment of women. But the zones have simply got to go.

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