ORLANDO, Fla., June 15, 2005—Florida’s Seminole Community College (SCC) has forbidden student Eliana Campos to distribute literature protesting slaughterhouse brutality at a table in the public area of the campus’ café. An administrator at the Oviedo campus refused to honor Campos’ constitutional rights because the source of the literature (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA) “instill[ed] a feeling” in her that she did not like.
SCC’s decision comes despite allowing other groups to set up tables exactly where Campos wanted to do so. When Campos protested this differential treatment, administrators referred her to a policy that would restrict her protest to a small, out-of-the-way “free speech zone.”
“Public colleges cannot apply different standards to different students based on the content of their message,” remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has twice written to SCC on Campos’ behalf. “SCC’s copy of the Bill of Rights must only include the last nine amendments.”
Campos’ tribulations began on March 23, 2005, when she went to SCC Student Activities Specialist Gail Agor to request permission to sit at a table and pass out literature from PETA. Agor refused her request and later justified it by writing, “Eliana, maybe you wouldn’t insult or yell, but PETA instills a feeling in me that I can’t, and won’t, take a chance on campus. [sic] ... I feel this is a set up for conflict.” She told Campos that she would only be allowed to “stand and speak freely” about her beliefs in the college’s tiny and ill-defined “free speech area.”
Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, noted, “These so-called ‘free speech zones’ turn most of a college into a censorship zone by confining freedom to one small area of campus. Not only is this fundamentally incompatible with the idea that a campus should be a marketplace of ideas, but it has been found unconstitutional at state colleges or universities, most recently at Texas Tech.”
FIRE wrote to SCC President E. Ann McGee on April 18, pointing out that Agor’s decision constituted discrimination against the student’s views and that SCC’s free speech zone policy was unconstitutional. In a response, Vice President James D. Henningsen wrote that Agor’s comments were not “authorized,” and that future requests would be considered on a content-neutral basis. However, he attached to his letter e-mails indicating that Campos could protest only in the free speech zone, and that only “registered student organizations” could table in the café.
Campos repeatedly requested a written copy of the alleged policy restricting café tables to student organizations, but was supplied only with another copy of the free speech zone policy—which does not mention the café. FIRE criticized SCC’s inability to produce the supposed student organizations-only policy in a June 7 reply to Henningsen, but has received no reply.
“Eliana Campos made several reasonable requests to see written policies that restrict her freedom of expression, but the administration has failed even to produce the policy it is using to censor her,” concluded FIRE’s French. “If students can be censored under arbitrary and unwritten rules, then they have no freedom at all.”
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
E. Ann McGee, President, Seminole Community College: 407-328-2009; firstname.lastname@example.org