Speech rules turn this college into a no-thought zone

Guest Column:
Virginia Postrel
Last September, Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, a student at Citrus Community College near Los Angeles, was collecting signatures on a petition asking the student government to condemn spying by the National Security Agency. More

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OP-ED / LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Speech rules turn this college into a no-thought zone

Guest Column:
Virginia Postrel
Posted 7/21/14

Last September, Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, a student at Citrus Community College near Los Angeles, was collecting signatures on a petition asking the student government to condemn spying by the National Security Agency.

He left the school’s designated “free speech area” to go to the student center. On his way there, he saw a likely prospect to join his cause: a student wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt. He stopped the student and they began talking about the petition.

An administrator then came out of a nearby building, informed them their discussion was forbidden outside the speech zone, and warned Sinapi-Riddle he could be ejected from campus for violating the speech-zone rule.

Sinapi-Riddle has now sued Citrus College, a state institution, for violating his First Amendment rights by, among other things, demanding that “expressive activities” be confined to the 1.34 percent of campus designated as a “free speech area.” Perhaps the most outrageous part of his experience is how common it is.

Speech-zone rules require students to ask permission to do such things as hand out leaflets, collect petition signatures, or give speeches; demand that students apply days or weeks in advance; and corral their activities in tiny areas of the campus, often away from the main pathways and quads. The rules aren’t about noise or crowds. They aren’t about disrupting classes. They’re about what you can do in public outdoor areas, and they apply even to just one or two people engaged in unobtrusive activities.

But judging from some of the public response to the Citrus College case, a lot of people think that approach is just fine. Debating national security issues, they seem to think, has no place at state colleges.

“The creation of the free-speech zones, and the enforcement of sound-level ordinances, was not to prevent free speech, but give religious or political speech a time, place and manner that would allow speakers to address their messages to audiences on campuses without disrupting the other fundamental functions of the institutions,” wrote a retired physics professor commenting on a Chronicle of Higher Education report.

A campus, in this view, should be like a shopping mall. If you’re going about your business, you shouldn’t be bothered by pamphleteers and petitioners. Confining controversial speech to a small area is no different from telling the guy selling sunglasses that he’s got to rent a kiosk.

There are two problems with this line of thought: one legal, one educational.

Legally, a public university is a type of public forum – not as open as a public sidewalk or park, perhaps, but nonetheless government property subject to the First Amendment. To pass constitutional muster, therefore, any restrictions on speech have to be both content-neutral and “reasonable” to accomplish a narrow government purpose.

Saying hundreds of people can’t hold a noisy demonstration outside the library where students are studying for exams might qualify as reasonable. Forbidding protestors from crowding sidewalks so that people can’t get to class might also – although the recent Supreme Court case on abortion protests suggests a heavy burden of proof. But there’s no way the speech-zone restrictions at places such as Citrus and elsewhere would make the cut.

Saying a single student can’t hand out copies of the Constitution or ask people to sign a petition without giving a week’s notice, getting a permit, or staying in a confined area simply isn’t reasonable.

Sinapi-Riddle can make a strong case that the Citrus Community College District blatantly violated his First Amendment rights. That’s why his lawsuit and two others involving speech zones at other public schools are part of a new litigation push by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil-liberties watchdog group on whose board I serve.

Higher education doesn’t exist to hand out job credentials to everyone who follows a clearly outlined set of rules.

Higher education exists to advance and transmit knowledge, and learning requires disagreement and argument. Even the most vocational curriculum – accounting, physical therapy, civil engineering, graphic design – represents knowledge accumulated through trial and error, experimentation and criticism.

The irony of the shopping-mall model is that shoppers know perfectly well how to do this. Walking through a mall, we negotiate all sorts of advertising signs and sample peddlers without a problem. Surely college students can do the same with sales pitches for ideas. •


Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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