GLENDORA, CA—FIRE has scored the first victory of its campaign against speech codes at public universities. California’s Citrus College abandoned its speech code after attorney Carol A. Sobel, a member of FIRE’s Legal Network, sued on behalf of Chris Stevens, a student. “This is a great day for liberty,” said FIRE Co-Director and Boston attorney Harvey A. Silverglate. “There is no doubt: we will defeat speech codes in the courts of law and of public opinion. Public universities will now see that they, too, must honor the Constitution.”
The lawsuit challenged two policies that quarantined free speech to three small and remote parts of campus. Speakers outside of these areas could be suspended, expelled, or even arrested. Students were required to notify the college not only of their intent to use the “free speech areas” but also of their intended message. No sound amplification whatsoever was allowed. Lastly, the areas could only be used on weekdays from 8am to 6pm—even though more than a third of students take classes between 4pm and 10pm.
The lawsuit against Citrus College was filed on May 20, 2003. On June 5, 2003, the Citrus College Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution revoking the policies. The Board also revoked another policy that, though not a part of the lawsuit, had been identified to the College by FIRE as a target for legal challenge. That policy had outlawed “offensive… expression or language.”
“We are very pleased with Citrus College’s decision to abandon these specific codes, but we are concerned about other policies there that restrict free expression,” said Silverglate. Citrus College still defines actionable sexual harassment simply—and broadly—as “verbal…conduct of a sexual nature.” Another policy states that posters, fliers, and other publications must not be “discriminatory” and that they “must have the approval of Student Affairs.”
In its resolution, the Board of Trustees charged the administration with conducting “a review of appropriate policies and procedures.” FIRE will be watching very closely to ensure that the College’s policies do not restrict protected speech.
“I don’t know why it took months of pleading and a lawsuit for me to be able to speak freely on my campus,” said Stevens, the plaintiff. “But thanks to Carol Sobel and to FIRE, my rights will soon be secure.”
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, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education. The Citrus College speech codes and the lawsuit can be seen at www.thefire.org.