LOS ANGELES, December 3, 2014—Today, Citrus College in California agreed to settle a student’s free speech lawsuit for $110,000, marking the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) second victory for the First Amendment in 24 hours.
Student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle filed the federal lawsuit in July as part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. Sinapi-Riddle was threatened with removal from campus for soliciting signatures for a petition against domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) outside of Citrus’s tiny “free speech area.”
In addition to the monetary settlement for Sinapi-Riddle’s damages and attorneys’ fees, Citrus has revised numerous policies, agreed not to impede free expression in all open areas of campus, and adopted a definition of harassment that complies with the First Amendment.
“Citrus College agreed to eliminate its restrictive ‘free speech zone’ in the face of a FIRE lawsuit back in 2003, but later reinstated its speech quarantine when it thought no one was watching,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “But FIRE was watching, and we’ll continue to do so. If the speech codes come back again, so will we.”
To hold Citrus to today’s settlement, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California will retain jurisdiction over the case for one year, allowing Sinapi-Riddle to enforce the agreement without filing a new lawsuit.
The incident leading to the lawsuit took place on September 17, 2013—Constitution Day. Sinapi-Riddle had gone to Citrus’s designated free speech area to collect signatures for a petition urging the college’s student government to condemn the NSA’s surveillance program. Then, as Sinapi-Riddle took a break to go to the student center, he began a discussion about the petition with another student. An administrator put a stop to the conversation, claiming that a political discussion could not take place outside of the free speech area and threatening to eject Sinapi-Riddle from campus for violating the policy.
In addition to restricting student free speech to an area comprising just 1.37 percent of the campus, Citrus maintained a lengthy approval process for registered student organizations seeking to engage in expressive activity. Sinapi-Riddle, president of Young Americans for Liberty at Citrus, had given up on organizing events because of a burdensome process that included review by four different college entities and a requirement of 14 days’ advance notice. The process was so complex that the Student Handbook had to include a flowchart illustrating it.
The lawsuit against Citrus College was one of four suits filed on July 1, marking the public launch of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. Attorneys Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine represented Sinapi-Riddle. FIRE has coordinated seven lawsuits to date, with more on the way. Citrus is the third that has been settled in favor of students’ free speech rights; each of the remaining four suits is ongoing.
“I feel that free speech and the ability to express oneself freely is a very important right for all students,” said Sinapi-Riddle. “I’m very grateful for FIRE’s help in making sure that limitations on free speech are a thing of the past at Citrus College.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org