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Students challenge free-speech rules on college campuses

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Students in California and three other states launch a legal attack against campus free-speech restrictions.
Citrus College student challenges "free speech zone" that restricts activity to small campus quad area.
Report finds that 58% of 427 colleges and universities surveyed nationwide restrict speech.

College students in California and three other states filed lawsuits against their campuses Tuesday in what is thought to be the first-ever coordinated legal attack on free speech restrictions in higher education.

Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, a 20-year-old studying computer science, alleged that Citrus College in Glendora had violated his 1st Amendment rights by restricting his petitioning activities to a small "free-speech zone" in the campus quad.

According to Sinapi-Riddle's complaint, a campus official stopped him last fall from talking to another student about his campaign against spying by the National Security Agency, saying he had strayed outside the free-speech zone. The official said he had the authority to eject Sinapi-Riddle from campus if he did not comply.

"It was shocking to me that there could be so much hostility about me talking to another student peacefully about government spying," Sinapi-Riddle said in an interview. "My vision of college was to express what I think."

In his lawsuit, Sinapi-Riddle is challenging Citrus' free-speech zone, an anti-harassment policy that he argues is overly broad and vague and a multi-step process for approving student group events. The college had eliminated its free-speech zones in a 2003 legal settlement with another student, but last year "readopted in essence the unconstitutional policy it abandoned," the complaint alleged.

College officials were not immediately available for comment. But communications director Paula Green forwarded copies of Citrus' free-speech policy, which declares that the campus is a "non-public forum" except where otherwise designated to "prevent the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the college." The policy instructs the college to enact procedures that "reasonably regulate" free expression.

The "Stand Up for Speech" litigation project is sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that promotes free speech and due process rights at colleges and universities. Its aim is to eliminate speech codes and other campus policies that restrict expression.

In a report published this year, the foundation found that 58% of 427 major colleges and universities surveyed maintain restrictive speech codes despite what it called a "virtually unbroken string of legal defeats" against them dating to 1989.

Even in California — unique in the nation for two state laws that explicitly bar free speech restrictions at both public and private universities — the majority of campuses retain written speech codes, he said. Among 16 California State University campuses surveyed by the group, for instance, 11 were rated "red" for employing at least one policy that "substantially restricts" free speech.

"Universities are scared of people who demand censorship -- they're afraid of lawsuits and PR problems," said Robert Shibley, the foundation’s senior vice president.

"Unfortunately, they are more worried about that than about ignoring their 1st Amendment responsibilities," he added. "The point of the project is to balance out the incentives that cause universities to institute rules that censor speech."

The foundation intends to target campuses in each of four federal court circuits; after each case is settled, it will file another lawsuit.

In other cases filed Tuesday:

— Iowa State University students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh challenged administrative rejection of their campus club T-shirt promoting legalization of marijuana. The university said the shirt violated rules that bar the use of the school name to promote "dangerous, illegal or unhealthy" products and behavior, according to the complaint.

— Chicago State University faculty members Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz sued over what they said were repeated attempts to silence a blog they write on alleged administrative corruption.

— Ohio University student Isaac Smith challenged the campus speech code that forbids any act that "degrades, demeans or disgraces another." University officials invoked the code to veto a T-shirt by Smith’s Students Defending Students campus group — which defends peers accused of campus disciplinary offenses. The T-shirt said, "We get you off for free," a phrase that administrators found "objectified women" and "promoted prostitution," the complaint said.

For more education news, follow @TeresaWatanabe 

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