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Professors suspended at Californian college for peacefully protesting outside of "Free Speech Patio"

The Eternally Radical Idea

If speaking your mind about issues facing the college where you teach--or even just joining a group of students doing the same--sounds to you like a reasonable thing for a professor to do, then you might want to stay away from Southwestern College in California.

That's the best conclusion I can draw regarding the situation at Southwestern College (SWC), which has banned three professors from campus and denied them the use of campus e-mail and other resources after they did nothing more than join a group of students who was peacefully protesting against recent budget cutbacks at the college.

Making things look still worse for SWC, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has received reports that campus police have been used to intimidate SWC faculty members and students and that students are being declared guilty of offenses for peacefully protesting on campus. To top it all off, SWC maintains an absurdly small "free speech zone," as well as an unconstitutional "Freedom of Expression" policy.

How small is the free speech zone, you ask? Well, it's actually a patio outside the Student Union. No, I did not just make that up. The whole affair is so ludicrous that FIRE sent a letter yesterday to SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra.

The basic facts of the case are as follows. According to eyewitnesses who have described the events both to FIRE and to the press, a group of students and faculty assembled on October 22 in SWC's "free speech area" to protest various actions of the college. One of the students then said, "Let's go where they can hear us"--apparently because it is frustrating to, you know, have one's protest event restricted to a patio. Some students then headed toward President Chopra's office, where they were met by campus police officers and prevented from even getting into the courtyard where Chopra's office is located. Three faculty members were with the group of students for different amounts of time during the students' conversation with the police officers, and they left separately.

Later that evening, the three professors were hand-delivered letters signed by Chopra at their off-campus homes, informing them that they were banned from campus due to an unspecified "matter" and were not even permitted to use campus e-mail or other resources. Just as chillingly, according to other reports, campus police officers have recently been attending peaceful gatherings of students and faculty, and students involved in such meetings and protests have been summoned to the president's office.

Unsurprisingly, FIRE is not alone in its concern about the college's blatant disregard for students' and faculty members' rights to peaceful protest. The Writer's Washroom has an excellent roundup of the television, radio, and print coverage of the case. Dissent the Blog has picked up our letter to SWC. Perhaps most useful is Save Our Southwestern College, a blog maintained by concerned SWC students, faculty, and other members of the campus community. It is a great resource for those wishing to read up on this case, and it provides timely updates.

I highly encourage readers to read more about this case and to spread the word. President Chopra needs to understand that dissent and protest are signs of a healthy university, not an infirm one, and that limiting free speech to a patio is not only unconstitutional, it is an insult to the principles of free speech on which higher education relies.

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