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Southwestern College Receives Jefferson 'Muzzle' Award for Egregious Censorship

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has awarded a 2010 "Jefferson Muzzle"—a dubious distinction reserved for "egregious or ridiculous affronts to the First Amendment right of free speech"—to administrators at California's Southwestern College. The public college earned its Muzzle by "consistently refusing to heed and apply such clear principles of free expression in the governance of an institution of higher learning" in dealing with a peaceful student and faculty protest over budget cuts, going so far as to ban from campus faculty members participating in the protest. As Torch readers know well, FIRE has been extensively involved in defending the faculty members and advocating for the dismantling of Southwestern's unconstitutional "free speech zone."

The Thomas Jefferson Center's description of the indefensible conduct of Southwestern College administrators makes clear why the school's Muzzle award is so well-deserved:

In October 2009, a group of students at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, participated in a peaceful protest over college budget cuts. Initially, the protest took place on a covered patio in front of the cafeteria. Sensing that they were in a location unlikely to be noticed by members of the college's administration, the protestors left the patio and moved in the direction of the courtyard outside the offices of Southwestern President Raj. K. Chopra. At different points in this chain of events, three Southwestern faculty members joined the protest. Upon reaching the courtyard, the protestors were met by a group of police officers who would not let them proceed further. The students and three faculty members peacefully complied and shortly thereafter left the area.

The basis for the police officers' action was the protestors' violation of the college's policy limiting all such speech activities to the "free speech" patio where the protest began. (It is not clear whether the protestors had reserved the patio in advance of their protest-another Southwestern policy.) That evening a college human resource officer, accompanied by a police officer, hand-delivered letters to the three faculty members involved in the day's events informing them that they were banned from campus pending a criminal investigation. The campus ban of the three faculty members was lifted two weeks later and the criminal investigation was eventually dropped, but an official reprimand was placed in each of the faculty members' employee files.

Southwestern College administrators appear intent on continuing the College's policy concerning campus protests. In February 2010, Nickolas Furr, who had set up a table outside the "free speech" patio to collect signatures calling for the recall of three members of the college's governing board who had voted to cut spring classes, was told he had to move his table to the patio. The college official who ordered Furr to move said he was acting on the order of a superior whom he declined to name. A similar incident occurred 6 days later when a group of students and faculty also sought signatures for removing the governing board members. Among the protestors was Southwestern Professor Robert Unger—a licensed attorney—who, when asked to move to the patio, politely refused insisting it was his right under federal and state law to protest outside of the patio so long as he was not disrupting college activities.

As the good folks at the Thomas Jefferson Center point out, public colleges and universities are of course entitled to impose reasonable regulations in order to ensure that the institution is able to operate, students are able to learn, and no one's safety is compromised. However, by engaging in outright censorship, Southwestern went far beyond what it is permitted to do:

Colleges and universities, along with other government entities and agencies that manage public property, may surely protect their educational activities, ensure equal access to scarce facilities, and impose content-neutral time, place and manner regulations designed to maintain safety and order. But when such rules become so restrictive as to stifle even the peaceful presentation and discussion of controversial viewpoints on public issues, free expression is inevitably at grave risk. "That danger," declared the U.S. Supreme Court, "is especially real in the University setting, where the State acts against a background and tradition of thought and experiment that is at the center of our intellectual and philosophic tradition." For consistently refusing to heed and apply such clear principles of free expression in the governance of an institution of higher learning, Southwestern College's administration clearly merits a 2010 Jefferson Muzzle.

We couldn't agree more with the Thomas Jefferson Center's condemnation of Southwestern's illiberal actions.

It will likely come as no surprise to FIRE supporters that this is the third consecutive year and the fourth year of the last five that a school at the center of a FIRE case has been awarded a Jefferson Muzzle.  After all, if you're looking for "egregious or ridiculous affronts to the First Amendment right of free speech," then all too often, our nation's colleges are a good place to start.

In 2006, New Jersey's William Paterson University garnered a Muzzle for slapping 63-year-old student-employee Jihad Daniel with an unfounded sexual harassment charge after he replied to an unsolicited mass e-mail with a private message expressing his religious views about homosexuality. In 2008—unfortunately, a banner year for censorship on campus—Hayden Barnes' expulsion from Valdosta State University and Brandeis University's punishment of Professor Donald Hindley earned each school a Muzzle. And last year, two Texas schools, Tarrant County College and Lone Star College, secured a shared Muzzle for censoring gun-related speech on campus. (Tarrant County College's "Muzzle" even made it into the complaint initiating the successful lawsuit brought against TCC, coordinated by FIRE and the ACLU of Texas.) 

We thank the Center very much for its consistent recognition of the fact that some of the nation's most blatant censorship continues to occur where it is least acceptable: our institutions of higher education, and again we thank the Center for bringing further attention to the mess at Southwestern College. We continue to work with students, faculty, and other organizations to dismantle the school's free speech zone, and we'll likely have more news on that front very soon.

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