Rights groups question new free speech policy at California college

FIRE and ACLU of San Diego have objected to a new policy at Southwestern College in San Diego that restricts peaceful protesters on campus to a “free speech zone.”-db

May 13, 2010

SAN DIEGO – Southwestern College (SWC) limits free expression on its California campus to a single “free speech patio” and has proposed a new policy that unconstitutionally restricts expression, according to letters released today by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLU-SD). The deadline for input on the new policy is this Saturday, May 15.

“Last fall, Southwestern College suspended four faculty members and banned them from campus for allegedly violating an unconstitutional free speech zone policy,” said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. “Despite taking five months to draft a replacement, Southwestern still hasn’t been able to produce a constitutional policy. The new proposed policy still restricts the rights of peaceful protesters on campus. Free speech zones like this one are unacceptably repressive.”

On October 22, 2009, a group of students and faculty members assembled in SWC’s “free speech zone” to protest various actions taken by the SWC administration. According to a professor who was in attendance, one of the students said, “Let’s go where they can hear us.” When some of the protesters reached the courtyard where SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra’s office is located, they were met by police officers who would not let them pass. Three faculty members who were with the group for different periods of time, and a fourth who was merely in the area, were placed on paid leave and banned from campus that night via letters hand-delivered to their off-campus homes. The faculty members also were banned “from using any District facilities, phone or email.”

FIRE wrote Chopra on November 3, 2009, explaining why both the “Freedom of Expression” policy and its application to the protesters were unconstitutional. In a November 25 response, SWC attorney Jonathan A. Pearl promised to “carefully consider the issues” raised by FIRE.

SWC convened an administrator-faculty-student committee to draft a new policy in January 2010. The committee announced a new proposed policy via an April 28, 2010 e-mail to all full-time and part-time SWC faculty from Angelina E. Stuart, Academic Senate President-Elect. Comment on the policy is open until Saturday, May 15. In response, both FIRE and ACLU-SD have sent letters protesting the constitutional problems in the new policy. ACLU-SD’s letter of May 7 identified several of these problems; FIRE’s letter of May 12 points out that the new policy not only threatens First Amendment liberties, but also betrays a public college’s function as a true marketplace of ideas.

“Seven months after violating the rights of its own faculty members, SWC has failed to produce a constitutional policy,” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The inaccurately named ‘Freedom of Expression’ policy remains on the books, chilling speech on campus every day and further violating the rights of students and faculty members. This policy must be revoked immediately in order to forestall further damage to free speech on campus.”

Copyright 2010 Foundation for Individual Rights in Education