Despite all the attention focused on the state of affairs at the University of California, San Diego, which languishes under a student media freeze amidst a series of racially charged incidents, FIRE hasn’t forgotten about the serious fight for free speech going on nearby at Southwestern College (SWC). SWC’s students and faculty aren’t forgetting anytime soon, either, as shown most recently by a recent slate of articles in the Southwestern Sun student newspaper.
The Sun‘s reporting gives a broad and deep look at the current climate at SWC, reporting on the recent faculty senate survey giving overwhelmingly failing marks to SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra (which I’ve also written about in depth here), the SWC accreditor’s decision to place the college on probation (which my colleague Adam Kissel has discussed here), faculty-led efforts to recall three of SWC’s trustees, and the ever-present abomination of SWC’s "free speech patio," the emblem of the SWC administration’s attempts to declare more than 95% of the public campus to be non-public.
SWC’s tiny free speech area makes an appearance in one article about various efforts to collect signatures for the recall effort and the inconsistent enforcement of SWC free speech regulations. As Sean Campbell, who previously co-authored an excellent article on Chopra’s tenure at SWC, reports for the Sun:
A small group of Southwestern College faculty, students and community members celebrated Martin Luther King Day with an act of civil disobedience to protest free speech restrictions on campus. Protesters collected signatures to recall three governing board members who voted to cut spring classes.
In defiance of the college’s free speech policy, which limits petitioning to a covered patio in front of the cafeteria, protesters set up a table near the front door of the Student Center to register voters and collect recall signatures. They were met by a college employee who asked them to move to the Free Speech Area. Professor of Reading Robert Unger politely refused and said state and federal law allowed citizens to redress their government on public property. After a brief and calm discussion, the employee left.
Need I say that if all discussions of the free speech patio transpired in such a civil manner, this might not have blown up into the national embarrassment that it has become for SWC? Or, better yet, the school could just abandon the concept altogether.
At any rate, this is unfortunately only half the story, as this successful demonstration followed the less successful efforts of another community member to do the same. Campbell continues:
Six days earlier, on the first day of classes for the spring semester, Nickolas Furr, a local writer and blogger, did not receive the same treatment. He was collecting signatures for the same campaign when he said he was confronted by a campus employee who claimed to have the authority to relegate Furr’s petitioning to the Free Speech Area.
"I was lied to," said Furr. "And then ordered to move."
Also not helping things is interim student activities coordinator James Bond, who seems to be dispensing his authority with anything but 007-like coherence:
Interim Student Activities Coordinator James Bond said the faculty members running the petition campaign had to fill out a registration form and were allowed to collect signatures outside the free speech zone for unknown reasons. Bond was the campus employee who confronted Furr six days earlier, he said, on order of a superior that he declined to name. He said the same thing happened when the faculty set up their signature table, but this time the administrator said to leave the faculty alone and only make them fill out a registration form. He insisted Furr was not being singled out. Bond said he gets calls from administrators, campus police, students and even some faculty when strangers come to campus seeking signatures.
"It’s not Nick," said Bond. "If anybody is out there filling petitions, I will find out what they are doing, get their information, and either let them stay, they’ll move them, or they’ll have to do it another day."
Glad we could clear that up, Mr. Bond.
More pointedly, in an open letter to SWC Vice President Nicholas Alioto, SWC Professor Dinorah Guadina-Costa—one of the SWC professors suspended for their presence at an October 22 rally—continues to challenge both SWC’s free speech policy and SWC’s allegations against the faculty:
You characterize the student movement to the 100 building as the "march [I] encouraged and provoked" and say that I "created an on-campus safety emergency for the District, its police officers and students." This is neither a fair nor accurate recounting of what happened. Many witnesses have come forward to say what pictures in the Southwestern Sun corroborate. I did nothing but walk with student to the 100 building and ask the police officers lined up to block our path to permit us to pass. They responded that they would not and they were "just following orders." There is absolutely no evidence that any confrontation occurred or that I was an "active participant in efforts to cross the police line to enter the 100 building." There is absolutely no evidence that I posted any danger to police officers or individuals working in and around the 100 building. I am a 55-year-old woman and am 5 feet tall. I have been a teacher all of my adult life and have worked at Southwestern college for over 19 years. My colleagues and I are long-time teachers committed to non-violence and at no time did any of us pose any danger to police officers or individuals working in and around the 100 building.
In your letter [of reprimand], you state "the District fully respects and supports freedom of expression and worked closely with the ASO to coordinate the October 22 rally."
If the district respected our rights to freedom of expression, it would not require an unlawful and unconstitutional permit for its expression. It would not unlawfully limit free expression to a small patio beside the bookstore where those speaking could not be heard.
In a separate editorial, the Sun also opens up for the first time about the difficulties the Sun has had with the SWC administration. After noting that Alioto "froze Sun budget lines and would not allow the payment of any invoices," the Sun writes that
Alioto called our adviser a liar and deceitful when he challenged the VP’s actions. Not one to admit a mistake gracefully, Alioto compounded matters at the last board meeting when he let VP of Human Resources Michael Kearns and about a dozen other members of the audience know exactly what he thought. While Trustee Nick Aguilar was speaking to reassigned time and discussing the adviser’s job, Alioto blurted out "That guy’s a fucking idiot!"
Someone might consider sending Alioto a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. He doesn’t seem to have been alone playing bad cop with the Sun, either; the paper also notes that President Chopra has previously berated Sun staffers, as well.
Speaking of Chopra, FIRE and many others have pointed out that, if he wants to reverse the collapse in confidence in his leadership among the faculty and staff of SWC, Chopra can—and must—take a strong stand in favor of free speech, and demonstrate respect for the input of his faculty and staff. Doing so can at least begin to undo the "culture of fear and intimidation" that is described in SWC’s accreditation report and overwhelmingly evident in the faculty senate survey.
Does he have any interest in doing this at all? If the Sun‘s account of his brief appearance at a meeting following the report’s release is accurate, I would guess the answer is no.
[Chopra] called a "town meeting" — a debriefing for the campus community required by WASC – to announce the findings and answer questions. His performance borders on dereliction of duty. He spent barely four minutes talking about the WASC report, a patronizing little speech where he urged college employees to regard the findings as a "glass half full." Socrates was once given a glass half full, too, only it was half full of hemlock. Chopra’s perfunctory "briefing" and call for teamwork and better communication ended with a classic Chopra moment. Asked by Professor [Jackie] Thomas how she could trust that he was committed to improving the campus climate, Chopra, who had already sat down, dismissed her question with a backhanded wave off gesture that was part "whatever" and part "get screwed."
Discouraging to say the least, but if there’s a silver lining to be found here, it’s that at least Chopra’s "get screwed" gesture won’t be nearly enough to keep the Southwestern Sun away.