FIRE: Stand up for free speech

At Citrus College in southern California, students can’t express their political beliefs outside a small “free speech” area, complains the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is urging Citrus students to Stand Up for Speech as part of a national campaign to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes on college campuses.

On September 17, 2013—Constitution Day— student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle was threatened with removal from campus by an administrator for asking a fellow student to sign a petition protesting NSA surveillance of American citizens. His crime?  Sinapi-Riddle was petitioning outside of the college’s tiny “free speech area.”

. . . Amazingly, this is the second time FIRE has coordinated a lawsuit against Citrus College’s “free speech area.” In 2003, the college agreed to abandon its free speech zone as part of a court-approved settlement following a First Amendment lawsuit filed by a student.

Sinapi-Riddle also is challenging the college’s “verbal harassment policy,” which prohibits “inappropriate or offensive remarks,” and the college’s elaborate permitting requirements for student groups. Before holding a campus event, groups must wait two weeks and get the permission of four separate college entities.

FIRE promises to sue colleges that limit students’ First Amendment rights.

Virginia colleges drop free-speech limits

Campus “free speech zones” are losing court challenges, reports Fox News. The Virginia Community College System has suspended its limits on student demonstrations in response to a lawsuit filed by a student. Christian Parks was barred from preaching at Thomas Nelson Community College.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says about six in 10 colleges nationwide have policies that violate First Amendment rights — and about one in six impose “free speech zones” like the policy at issue in the Virginia case — even though such restrictions rarely survive constitutional challenges.

In 2002, West Virginia University dropped its free-speech zone policy after being sued by a civil liberties organization. Two years later, a federal judge struck down Texas Tech’s policy establishing a 20-foot-wide gazebo as a free-speech zone. Last year, Des Moines Area Community College abandoned a policy restricting student leaflet-distribution activities to a table in the student center. And earlier this year, Modesto Junior College in California agreed to drop its free-speech zone and pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a student who was barred from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.

Parks was preaching in a courtyard last year when a campus police officer ordered him to stop because he “might offend someone,” according to the lawsuit. A week later, an officer again ordered Parks not to speak, he says.  School officials said he was violating a policy that allows demonstrations only by recognized student organizations, requires four days advance notice and limits the activity to a specific area.

“Mr. Parks would like to continue preaching not only in the Courtyard, but also in other open, outdoor areas of campus that are generally open to passers-by,” the lawsuit says.

A Bergen Community College (New Jersey) professor was placed on unpaid leave and required to meet with a psychiatrist because he posted a photo of his daughter in a T-shirt with a Game of Thrones quote on Google+.

Daenarys’ line — “I will take what is mine with fire & blood.” — was seen as a threat by an administrator, who happened to be a Google+ contact.

Professor Francis Schmidt, an art and animation professor, met with administrators to explain his daughter’s T-shirt, reports Inside Higher Ed. A security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”  (Actually, it’s a proxy for dragons.)

Using Google, Schmidt showed approximately 4 million hits for the quote. Despite that, he was barred from campus till cleared by a psychiatrist.

“Schmidt believes he was targeted in part because he filed a grievance against the college a week before the post for being passed up for a sabbatical,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Student suspended for questioning governor

After Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy spoke at Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) on Oct. 23, 2013, student Nicholas Saucier questioned him about gun-control legislation, as shown on video. Saucier was led off campus by ACC President James Lombella and a security guard, then suspended and found guilty of harassment and threats.

At a Nov. 18 hearing, ACC refused to review the videos. Saucier was placed on probation and threatened with suspension or expulsion for “any future conduct violations.”

The college denied Saucier’s free speech and due-process rights, charges the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Are kangaroo courts the norm at Asuntuck? asks Peter Bonilla.

A machine-technology student and a veteran, Saucier used his savings to start an ammunition business that’s gone “belly up” because of the law, he told the governor.

Racism talk leads to reprimand

discussion of structural racism led to a reprimand for Shannon Gibney, who teaches Intro to Mass Communications at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Three white male students complained they were singled out by Gibney, reports City Pages.

An English professor, Gibney also teaches African Diaspora Studies in a new associate degree program. About a third of MCTC students are African-American or African refugees. Overall, “people of color” make up 53 percent of enrollment and many students are the first in their families to attend college.

In a video interview with City College News, Gibney said she told Mass Communications students she was talking about “whiteness as a system of oppression,” but they took it personally.

[One of the white students asked,] ‘Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?’ I was shocked… It was not in a calm way. His whole demeanor was very defensive. He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner — as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class — that this is unfortunately the context of 21st century America.

Another white male student said, ‘Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?’

She told students to “feel free to go down to legal affairs and file a racial harassment discrimination complaint.” So they did.

The vice president of academic affairs found it “troubling” that Gibney “alienated two students who may have been most in need of learning about this subject. . . . While I believe it was your intention to discuss structural racism generally, it was inappropriate for you to single out white male students in class. Your actions in [targeting] select students based on their race and gender caused them embarrassment and created a hostile learning environment.”

MCTC issued a statement:

At MCTC, we believe it is essential for our faculty to actively engage students in respectful discussions in the classroom regardless of topic and to create an atmosphere in which students may ask questions as an important part of the classroom experience. Questions from students in classroom discussions are an essential part of the learning process. We expect that faculty will have the professional skills to lead difficult conversations in their classrooms and will teach in a way that helps students understand issues, even when students feel uncomfortable or disagree with particular ideas.

“I don’t feel safe in the class anymore,” Gibney told City College News.

“I definitely feel like I’m a target in the class. I don’t feel like students respect me,” she continued. “Those students were trying to undermine my authority from the get-go. And I told the lawyer at the investigatory meeting, ‘You have helped those three white male students succeed in undermining my authority as one of the few remaining black female professors here.'”

A similar complaint was filed in 2009, after Gibney was invited to speak at a City College News editorial board meeting, a former student editor told City Pages. In talking about structural racism in the media, Gibney singled out white editors and criticized them for not rooting out bias, according to Ryan, who would not give his full name.

Ryan complained to Gibney about her “unprofessional tirade” in an email. When she circulated his email and her response to students and faculty, he filed a harassment complaint.

Gibney gives her account of the incident in Gawker.

Student files free-speech lawsuit

Modesto Junior College (MJC) student and Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen is suing the Yosemite Community College District and MJC administrators for violating his First Amendment rights. Van Tuinen was prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution — on Constitution Day — because the small “free speech area” was in use.

“Constitutional law can get pretty complicated at times. This is not one of those times,” said Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

College: Free speech requires a permit

Modesto Junior College (California) stopped students from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, Sept. 13, because they hadn’t obtained a permit five days in advance and weren’t in the small “free speech zone.”

Free speech doesn’t require a permit argues the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in a letter to the college president. Student Robert Van Tuinen was told the free speech area was in use that day and he’d have to wait one or two weeks to hand out materials.

Suspended student claims anti-English bias

A Pima Community College nursing student claims the Tucson college suspended her for complaining that classmates spoke Spanish in class creating a disruptive and “hostile” learning environment. Terri Bennett, 50, charges the nursing program director called her a “bigot and a bitch.”

Bennett sued the college in Pima County Superior Court, alleging harassment, privacy violations, breach of contract, violations of the Arizona Constitution, retaliation, defamation, discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Pima instructors teach in English, but students translate the lessons into Spanish for non-English speakers, charges Bennett, who does not speak or understand Spanish. Her classmates spoke primarily in Spanish during labs, clinicals and other activities, her filing said.

“During (Introduction to Nursing), the talking, interruptions and distractions, all in Spanish, from her peers increased dramatically, to the point that it impede Ms. Bennett’s ability to concentrate, focus, listen to the lecture, and participate in group studies, clinicals, and other learning activities.

“On or about April 3, 2013, Ms. Bennett participated in an interaction between Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers in her class, in which the Spanish speakers were asked not to speak in Spanish in front of non-Spanish speakers. The Spanish-speaking group of students laughed and mocked Ms. Bennett and the other non-Spanish speakers.

Bennett complained to David Kutzler, director of the nursing program. She charges he accused her of “discriminating against Mexican-Americans” and threatened to “write [her] up for a violation of the code of conduct based on discrimination and harassment,” her complaint charges. “He accused Ms. Bennett of being a ‘bigot and a bitch,’ and warned her ‘[y]ou do not want to go down that road.'”

Several weeks later, Bennett was suspended on charges of discrimination and harassment and disrupting class by arguing with an instructor about a test answer.

Bennett claims her suspension violated the Arizona constitution, which establishes English as the state’s official language, and violates her free speech rights. “PCC took extreme disciplinary measures against Ms. Bennett because she expressed her opinion about English being spoken in PCC classrooms,” the complaint states.

Students complained that Bennett was harassing and intimidating them for having private conversations in Spanish, Kutzler told the Daily Caller.  He denies calling Bennett a “bigot and a bitch.”

Iowa college pays $14,000 to settle free-speech suit

Des Moines Area Community College will pay nearly $14,000 to settle a free-speech lawsuit filed by a student barred from distributing fliers criticizing a conference on gay youth, reports KCRG. The college dropped a policy that allowed students to distribute leaflets only in a single hallway — if they got permission 10 days in advance.

Jacob Dagel, who was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, was barred by a security guard from distributing fliers that criticized the college for subsidizing a March conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth.

The community college should have known better, responds FIRE, which defends free speech rights on campus.

College reverses ban on ‘sex’ newspaper

Central New Mexico Community College backed down this week from its decision to suspend the student newspaper for publishing a “sex issue.”

The Albuquerque school had suspended publication of the CNM Chronicle and suspended the student staff Tuesday, following the issue’s release. Administrators said the content, which included articles on sex toys, abstinence, and students’ favorite sexual positions, was offensive and inappropriate for the school’s mission.

Officials then took issues off distribution racks on a campus of nearly 30,000 students.

On Wednesday, officials said the paper will resume publication and the “sex issue” will be returned to the racks.

CNM President Katharine Winograd told students that officials originally pulled the paper from the stands because “a high school student was included in this issue and we needed to check on the legal ramifications of information on a minor in a publication of the college.”

Winograd also said the college, which does not have a journalism program, had failed to give students proper resources.

CNM Chronicle Editor Jyllian Roach said the sex issue was meant to be educational. The high school student was interviewed for a story on abstinence, with permission from the student’s parents. A sociology major Roach now plans to pursue a career in journalism.

Censoring a student publication because its content is offensive violates students rights to freedom of expression, argues FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) in a letter to the college.

High school and college newspapers often publish issues focusing on sexual matters — and often run into controversy.

The Jesus stomp

Telling Intercultural Communications students to stomp on a piece of paper with “Jesus” written on it was supposed to illustrate the power of symbols. (Why not an “Allah” stomp? That’s a really powerful symbol!)  Now Florida Atlantic University has apologized for the “Jesus” stomp exercise, but denied suspending the student who complained about it.

“This exercise will not be used again,” FAU officials said in a statement. “We sincerely apologize for any offense this caused. Florida Atlantic University respects all religions and welcomes people of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs.”

The exercise came from a book by a St. Norbert College communications professor, Jim Neuliep.

“This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings,” the exercise states. “Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

“We can confirm that no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the university as a result of any activity that took place during this class,” the university statement claimed, adding that students weren’t required to step on the paper.

Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon, was charged with violating the student code of conduct and ordered not to attend class, according to Fox News. He’d told instructor Deandre Poole that he objected to the exercise, saying “don’t do that again” and “you’ll be hearing from me.”

. . . according to a letter written by Associate Dean Rozalia Williams, Rotela is facing a litany of charges – including an alleged violation of the student code of conduct, acts of verbal, written or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person.”

“In the interim, you may not attend class or contact any of the students involved in this matter – verbally or electronically – or by any other means,” Williams wrote to Rotela. “Please be advised that a Student Affairs hold may be placed on your records until final disposition of the complaint.”

Presumably, the charges have been dropped, but FAU, a state university, didn’t admit Rotela had been threatened and didn’t apologize to him.

The professor had a right to ask students to stomp on “Jesus,” but can’t require them to violate their religious beliefs, argues FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff, citing a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court case. Protesting the exercise was a classic exercise of free speech rights.

Another FAU communications professor, James Tracy, has questioned “whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place —at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”