Oakland community college considers free-speech zone

Trustees of Peralta Community college consider rules for where and how groups may speak on campus in the wake of a dispute with an anti-abortion group that regularly visits campuses in the East Bay. -db

May 13, 2010
By Matt Krupnick

OAKLAND — The Peralta Community College district is considering guidelines to limit where and how groups can speak on campus, prompting outrage from employees and students who say the proposed rules would restrict free speech.

“This is an abomination,” said Robert Bezemek, an attorney for the Peralta Federation of Teachers, which has threatened to sue if the policy is adopted. “This is a (policy) Martin Luther King would have violated the moment he spoke. For 270 years, the colleges of this country have been free-speech zones.”

Peralta is only the latest district to consider the so-called free-speech zones, which have riled academics around the country.

The Peralta guidelines are the result of a dispute with an anti-abortion group that has visited several East Bay colleges in the past two years, the district’s attorney, Thuy Nguyen, told a small group of students, professors and other employees at Oakland’s Laney College on Wednesday.

Some reacted angrily to Nguyen’s explanation.

The proposed policy, No. 5550, is still being altered, Nguyen said, although she declined to discuss specifics. The discussion comes as administrators at a San Diego-area community college, Southwestern College, continue to battle professors over a similar policy, which also is labeled No. 5550.

Southwestern last year suspended three professors for speaking somewhere other than on the campus “free-speech patio.” And the City College of San Francisco last year settled a federal lawsuit filed by Jews for Jesus after one of its members was arrested for speaking on campus.

The proposed rules handed out at Wednesday’s meeting would limit speakers to the main quads at Laney, Merritt College and the College of Alameda, and to a student lounge at Berkeley City College. Speakers would be required to reserve the space at least three business days in advance, and all fliers posted on campus bulletin boards would need to include English translations.

Although the proposal notes that administrators may not prevent someone from speaking based on the subject of their speech, it prohibits “disruptive behavior” and the “open and persistent defiance of the authority” of college employees. It also would ban obscenity, profanity and amplification.

Nguyen said she is still negotiating the final version with the anti-abortion group, which filed a claim against the district because it said Peralta unfairly restricted an event at the College of Alameda. A settlement is imminent, she said.

“If there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s an ability to coexist,” she said.

Some argued that the proposed rules were too vague, but said the college district was right to provide structure. Students and employees have been harassed by groups carrying video cameras and posting graphic photographs of aborted fetuses, said Margaret Traylor, a Laney librarian.

“Everything in this world needs a framework,” she said. “That’s just part of being in a community.”

An estimated 70 percent of U.S. public colleges and universities restrict speech in some way, said Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has fought against free-speech zones around the country.

It would be unreasonable — and unconstitutional — for Peralta to require speakers to reserve time to express opinions, Creeley said.

Free-speech zones “do not allow students to express thoughts on the events of the day,” he said. “Students have to be allowed to get together without registering in advance.”

Copyright 2010 San Jose Mercury News