Victory for Free Speech at Nassau Community College: Faculty Liberated from ‘Free Speech Zone’

August 22, 2011

Last week, after twice confining faculty members who were protesting budget cuts behind metal barricades, Nassau Community College (NCC) on New York’s Long Island reversed itself and allowed its instructors to freely distribute literature and carry protest signs across campus. Thankfully, FIRE was able to help. As FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said in today’s press release, "NCC was treating faculty members like potential rioters. This was a classic case of unconstitutional restraint on free speech."

A week before a July rally on NCC’s main plaza by members of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers (NCCFT), faculty member Ralph Nazareth informed NCC’s Public Safety Office of the group’s intent to protest against campus budget cuts. When Nazareth and other protesters arrived at the site for the protest on July 20, 2011, they found metal barricades awaiting them.

Director of Public Safety Martin J. Roddini handed Nazareth a notice ordering the faculty members to stay behind the barricades. The notice stated, "Any person leaving the designated area with the intent to protest will be warned that he/she must return to the enclosed area," and added, "If that person persists, his/her right to remain on the campus may be forfeited." The faculty members also reported that they were prohibited from distributing flyers at the rally because the flyers had not been pre-approved by NCC’s student government, nonsensically making faculty expression subject to the whims of their own students.

When NCCFT members held a second protest on August 3, NCC again forced the protesting faculty behind barricades. This time Roddini gave them a different notice, which cited a county ordinance regarding obstruction of entrances and exits (which nobody had accused the faculty members of doing). Roddini reportedly permitted faculty members to distribute flyers outside of the barricades, but arbitrarily decided that they had to leave their hand-held posters behind.

The messages on the posters at the protests included "Students are not sardines-class size matters," "NCC is not fast food-No drive-through education," "Stop the corporate takeover of NCC," and "Restore full-time faculty lines now."

On August 16, the day before the third protest, FIRE wrote NCC President Donald P. Astrab an urgent letter regarding the violations of the faculty members’ rights. FIRE noted that the barricades and movement restrictions did not meet the Supreme Court’s requirement that reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on protests be narrowly tailored to serve a substantial governmental interest. [See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989).]

Our letter also informed NCC of our success defeating "free speech zone" policies across the country, including at the University of North Carolina at GreensboroWest Virginia UniversitySeminole Community College in Florida, Citrus College in California, Texas Tech University, and Tarrant County College in Texas. FIRE pointed out that NCC’s restrictions violated the college’s own statement that it "will make every effort to encourage free speech as protected by the U.S. Constitution."

On August 17, the day of the protest, NCCFT leaders received a faxed statement acknowledging their freedom to demonstrate, carry posters, and distribute flyers on campus–even outside building entrances and exits (without obstructing them). No barricades were erected. FIRE is thankful that NCC has finally recognized its constitutional responsibilities, and we hope that going forward, the college will be quicker to do so.