Last month in Los Angeles Superior Court, a Cal State Northridge student won an unheralded yet significant victory for free speech on the Internet.
Judge Diane Wayne’s Jan. 14 ruling upholding Chris Landers’ right to engage in political advocacy using a university computer server marks the first application to cyberspace of the public forum doctrine, created by the U.S. Supreme Court to assess restrictions on speech on government property. This thoughtful decision adds to emerging precedents applying the 1st Amendment to individual expression on the Internet--a nascent and controversial area of law.
Landers, a CSUN senior, holds an account on the university’s server, which provides Internet access for students, faculty and administrators. Last summer, he designed and posted on the server a World Wide Web page for the state Senate campaign of his friend, John Birke, who was challenging state Sen. Cathie Wright in the 19th District, which includes Northridge.
The Web page featured color graphics and satirical animation: a picture of Wright’s face morphed into a skull to dramatize Wright’s ties to the tobacco industry. Of course, this mordant commentary generated controversy. When Wright complained, CSUN censored the Web page by removing it from the server.
Landers sued the Board of Trustees of the California State University system, contending that CSUN’s action violated his right to freedom of speech. He asked the court to determine whether, as the university contended, CSUN could dictate the types of expression allowed on the server, or, as Landers argued, the server was a public forum open to unrestricted political discourse.
A public forum is government property, like the server, intentionally dedicated to expressive purposes. Even in a public forum, the right of free speech isn’t absolute, but restrictions on expression based on its content must be “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling interest.” Not all government property is a public forum though. If its property is not a public forum, the government can impose any reasonable restriction on expression, so long as the restriction isn’t just a way of discriminating against the viewpoints expressed.
Since 1960, the Supreme Court has recognized that the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the nation’s schools. Twenty-five years ago, the court observed that the college campus is a “marketplace of ideas” possessing many characteristics of a public forum. Landmark decisions since have consistently struck down restrictions on expression on college campuses.
As a medium for campus expression, the CSUN server exemplifies the marketplace of ideas. It is no different than a meeting room or student publication to which the broadest standards of expression apply. In her opinion, Wayne agreed. She rejected CSUN’s ban on political speech as prior restraint, neither necessary to protect a state-funded resource nor narrowly tailored to serve that purpose.
Despite the court’s sharp rebuke, CSUN continues to maintain that it can ban from the server expression it deems unrelated to academic purposes or university business. CSUN’s defiant posture sets the stage for review by higher courts. Those courts would do well to heed Wayne’s decision, which shows the continuing vitality of the Bill of Rights in our lives.
Meanwhile, Landers has set up a new Web page about the struggle for free expression on the CSUN server. Read all about it at: www.csun.edu/~hbart020