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Cal Poly Admin Says Suit Could Have Been Avoided If Student Had Only Met with Her First—But He Did

In April, a spokeswoman from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona claimed that if Nicolas Tomas, who challenged the university’s unconstitutional free speech zone in court, had just come to the administration, the situation could have been remedied without a lawsuit. As I pointed out here on The Torch in April, Nick did try to get administrators to address his concerns about free expression on campus—only to be given copies of outdated policies and told that he would have abide by their restrictive terms. Unable to get any satisfaction through bureaucratic channels, Nick turned to FIRE for help and became the plaintiff in our ninth Stand Up For Speech lawsuit. The parties announced a settlement agreement on July 23, 2015, and now that Cal Poly Pomona has posted its new policies on its website as stipulated in the agreement, the case will officially end today.

In the wake of some excellent reporting by Beau Yarbrough on restrictive speech policies at California colleges, Nick’s suit is back in the news. The local CBS affiliate aired a report in which Rebecca Gutierrez Keeton, the former vice president for student affairs, said the following:

If he [Nick] had walked into my office and said “you know, I think there are some misunderstandings, why was I told this,” I could have changed the policy in five minutes and saved the state of California thirty-five thousand dollars[.]


Here’s the funny thing: Nick managed to set up a meeting with eight administrators—including Gutierrez Keeton—to express his concerns about Cal Poly Pomona’s restrictions on his expressive rights. At that meeting, the group delegated follow-up with Nick to Byron Howlett, acting Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, and La’Keisha Gilford-Beard, director of the Office of Student Life & Cultural Centers (whose staff issued the infamous free speech badges that activists had to wear in the free speech zone). In a subsequent meeting, those administrators—both of whom work for Gutierrez Keeton—told Nick that he had to abide by the policy and that there was nothing he could do to change it.

It’s understandable that defendant universities don’t want to admit that their policies were unconstitutional. But pretending there was never a real problem is an ineffective way of turning the tide of public opinion. So, as a public service, here are FIRE’s suggested talking points for schools that have just settled a Stand Up For Speech lawsuit and wish to move forward:

  • We welcome this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to free expression on this campus.
  • Our policies now make crystal clear that this campus is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and the FIrst Amendment.
  • We are gratified that this case has been settled, limiting legal costs and allowing us to demonstrate our commitment to First Amendment principles.

If a public college or university can’t put its name to one of those statements, then it is betraying its mission as well as cheating taxpayers and tuition-paying students.  

To its credit, Cal Poly Pomona included the following language in the presidential order that implemented the new policies:

While there will always be disagreements over what may constitute good taste or appropriate comment, there can be no question, particularly in a university, that freedom of expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution is a cherished and protected right.

That’s a powerful statement. Although it took longer than “five minutes,” Cal Poly Pomona administrators now have the policies they need to protect free speech on campus. FIRE can’t make Cal Poly Pomona administrators admit they violated the First Amendment, but we can—and will—make sure they don’t do so again in the future.

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