Violate students’ free speech rights, prepare to be sued

Kabir Kapur leads protesters at a march through the UC Davis campus in November to oppose proposed tuition increases.
Kabir Kapur leads protesters at a march through the UC Davis campus in November to oppose proposed tuition increases. Sacramento Bee file

Apologies to the Beach Boys, but if you’re going to college in California, it’s pretty hard to be true to your school.

Last week, student Nicolas Tomas took a step to make his university, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, worthy of his allegiance. An animal rights advocate, he sued the school for violating his First Amendment rights. When he tried to distribute fliers exposing industrial farming practices, campus security officers sent him to get a permit.

It gets worse. Like many schools nationwide, Cal Poly Pomona confines students to a tiny “free speech zone.” The university put Tomas in a free speech quarantine. Even worse, he was forced to wear a badge indicating he was authorized to speak.

A student at a public university doesn’t need a permit to express him or herself. Handing out fliers in an open area of campus is a textbook example of expression protected by the First Amendment. Why should students who want to speak on contentious issues be marked with a scarlet letter?

Cal Poly Pomona is not alone. The Golden State has the dubious distinction of harboring three of the nine colleges that have been sued as part of a national effort by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work.

Cal Poly Pomona should note that when the first two California campuses were sued, the schools quickly settled.

At Citrus College in Glendora, an administrator threatened to have student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle removed from campus because he asked another student to sign a petition outside the free speech zone. Citrus also required student groups wishing to express themselves to obtain permission from four separate college entities two weeks before any event – an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech. And Citrus’ “verbal harassment policy” prohibited “inappropriate or offensive remarks,” an unconstitutionally vague standard. The only sure way to stay out of trouble is to keep silent.

Six months after Sinapi-Riddle went to federal court, Citrus agreed to revise its policies and pay $110,000 in legal fees and damages.

Modesto Junior College learned about the First Amendment the hard way, too. On Sept. 17, 2013 – Constitution Day – campus security there blocked student Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution because he was outside the free speech zone. Never mind that he was literally holding the First Amendment in his hand.

Last February, the college settled Van Tuinen’s suit, agreeing to eliminate its free speech zone and pay $50,000.

See a pattern?

Of the three California colleges sued over free speech zones and other unconstitutional policies, two have already paid the price. Cal Poly Pomona will presumably do the same. Our group had sent certified letters to California public colleges with the worst policies warning them to conform their rules to the First Amendment, or risk ending up in court. Cal Poly Pomona ignored the letter.

California’s public colleges and universities are not exempt from the First Amendment. They should learn from the mistakes of Citrus, Modesto and Cal Poly Pomona and work to change their restrictive speech policies before being sued.

David Deerson is a program associate for campus outreach at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group based in Philadelphia.