- Public records reveal administrators schemed to justify removing flyers deemed “inappropriate” because of conservative messages
- FIRE lawsuit challenges blatant viewpoint discrimination, seeks to hold administrators personally accountable
- Student: “Our college should encourage us to discuss and sharpen our ideas, not shut down the conversation.”
FRESNO, Calif., Aug. 11, 2022 — Three conservative college students wanted to criticize authoritarianism. But when administrators deemed their opinions inappropriate and offensive, the students found themselves facing an oppressive regime right on campus.
Today, students from a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, sued California’s Clovis Community College, delivering a simple message: Public colleges cannot ban students’ flyers because administrators subjectively deem their political viewpoints inappropriate or offensive.
“Clovis tried to put up barriers against our ideas because administrators didn’t like them,” said YAF-Clovis founder Alejandro Flores. “But that’s the opposite of what a college should do. Our college should encourage us to discuss and sharpen our ideas, not shut down the conversation.”
In November 2021, Alejandro and fellow club members Daniel Flores and Juliette Colunga received permission from administrators to hang three flyers on bulletin boards inside Clovis’ academic buildings. The flyers advocated for freedom and listed the death tolls of communist regimes.
Emails obtained via a public records request reveal that soon after the flyers went up, a Clovis administrator wrote that he would “gladly” take the flyers down, following complaints about their content. The administrator also wrote that approving the flyers in the first place may have been a “mistake,” and that Clovis instead should have censored them under a policy that states: “Posters with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes are not permitted and will not be approved.”
On Nov. 12, Clovis President Lori Bennett personally ordered the flyers removed. After doing so, she searched for a reason to justify the viewpoint discrimination, inventing a brand new rule requiring flyers to double as club announcements.
“If you need a reason, you can let them know that [we] agreed they aren’t club announcements,” Bennett wrote. Clovis does not have a policy on the books that requires flyers to be club announcements. But with this excuse in hand, Clovis employees told student workers to remove the flyers.
Administrators later used that pretextual justification to stop the students from hanging a new set of five pro-life flyers — which the students submitted for approval in December — on the bulletin boards inside heavily trafficked campus buildings. Instead, administrators banished the flyers to a rotting “free speech kiosk” in a desolate part of campus.
“By relegating the flyers to a tiny kiosk, Clovis administrators tried to ensure that YAF’s opinions would never reach the rest of campus,” said FIRE attorney Jeff Zeman. “But FIRE’s here to amplify the voices that censors try to silence and make sure that all Clovis students are heard.”
Public colleges like Clovis are bound by the First Amendment, and it is unconstitutional to treat student groups differently based on their viewpoints. Clovis’ vague policy banning “inappropriate” or “offense [sic]” themes — terms that could apply to just about anything — puts protected expression in jeopardy by allowing administrators to arbitrarily decide which opinions are inappropriate or offensive and which deserve to be heard.
“Free speech is under attack on campuses across the nation, and the recent improper action by Clovis Community College constitutes yet another disappointing example,” said Young America’s Foundation President Gov. Scott Walker. “By attempting to stifle the speech of the conservative students in our Young Americans for Freedom chapter, Clovis administrators engaged in unlawful censorship in violation of the First Amendment.”
Today’s lawsuit is against the college president and three other administrators in their personal and official capacities. By suing these defendants as individuals, not just in their official capacities as Clovis administrators, FIRE and the YAF students not only seek to change the college’s unconstitutional policy and end its practice of censoring students based on viewpoint, but to hold college officials personally accountable for violating students’ clearly established free speech rights.
“Clovis’ policy and its application are illegal, and FIRE won’t let them get away with it,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “Clovis admins ‘gladly’ removed posters they found offensive, and we’re gladly suing them to protect Alejandro, Juliette, and Daniel’s rights — and those of all students.”
The lawsuit was filed by FIRE with Daniel Ortner serving as local counsel.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.
If your First Amendment rights are threatened, contact FIRE: https://www.thefire.org/alarm.
Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
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