LOS ANGELES, March 31, 2015—College student Nicolas Tomas filed a First Amendment lawsuit today against California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, with assistance from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The lawsuit targets university policies that restrict where, when, and how students can exercise their free speech rights.
The lawsuit alleges that on February 4, a Cal Poly Pomona police officer stopped Tomas from handing out flyers on a campus sidewalk. The officer directed Tomas to the Office of Student Life to obtain a “permit,” namely a badge that he would have to wear while distributing any written material. Furthermore, he would be confined to Cal Poly Pomona’s tiny “free speech zone”—a patch of turf that makes up less than 0.01 percent of campus.
Cal Poly Pomona’s campus policies impose a web of restrictions before students can distribute literature on campus: They must check in with the Office of Student Life, allow the school to copy their IDs, and wear badges signed by an administrator. Even then, would-be speakers are relegated to the so-called “free speech zone.” Badges can only be issued from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, although the Office of Student Life pledges to “work with” any student who wishes to engage in expressive activity on evenings or weekends. Additionally, students must register in advance for outdoor events, and the Office of Student Life must approve all flyers and posters.
“At Cal Poly, students have to wear a free speech badge in the free speech zone and can only get that authorization on weekdays. This is a cartoonish violation of the First Amendment, almost beyond parody,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “Requiring students to obtain permits to speak at a public university is not just unconstitutional; it discourages students from engaging with the campus community on the issues they are most passionate about.”
Last fall, FIRE sent a national certified mailing to warn more than 300 public colleges and universities with unconstitutional speech codes that they were at risk of being sued if they continued to ignore the First Amendment rights of their students. Earlier this month, FIRE followed up with the schools in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that did not respond to the fall letter—including Cal Poly Pomona—to give them a final warning to fix their unconstitutional speech codes. Cal Poly Pomona ignored these warnings and violated student rights as a result. This lawsuit ensued.
Tomas is disheartened at his school’s disregard for his basic constitutional rights.
“I came to college excited not only to further my education but to also participate in more activism. But I soon learned that it was going to be very difficult to share my beliefs with other students at Cal Poly and that was very disappointing to me,” said Tomas. “This lawsuit is going to ensure that all students at Cal Poly are able to exercise their free speech rights without having to ask the school for permission. I can’t wait until students’ First Amendment rights are restored.”
Cal Poly Pomona’s inhospitable attitude to free speech is codified in its 2008 and 2014 Presidential Orders regarding “Use of University Buildings, Facilities, or Grounds” and in a 2002 “Interim Policy” that is still being enforced.
Tomas’s lawsuit is the ninth First Amendment lawsuit filed as part of FIRE’s national Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. FIRE has retained preeminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine and his colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman to serve as counsel for Tomas.
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 freedom 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