A look at free speech on campus

At colleges and universities across the country, emotions were running high after the 2016 presidential election.

“People were polarized,” says Kai Stearns Moore, district director of public and governmental affairs for the North Orange County Community College District in California. She saw plenty of examples of this at nearby institutions.

In a classroom at Orange Coast College, a faculty member spoke out against Donald Trump. A student filmed the speech on his phone. The video went viral and “it blew up,” Moore says.

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At Pierce College, in November 2016, a student distributing Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution was told he’d have to obtain a permit and move to a campus free speech zone in order to continue his activities. The student sued the college in early 2017, alleging his right to free speech was violated. The lawsuit is ongoing.

A couple months prior, just before September 11, a conservative student group at Saddleback College put up posters showing images of terrorist attacks on the exterior of buildings in violation of board policy. When a faculty member began taking down the posters, the group filmed her and posted the video online.

Interesting times

Incidents like these are happening on two- and four-year campuses across the country. In each instance, the central question is, “What constitutes freedom of speech?”

“It’s a very interesting time,” says Sharon Ormond, a lawyer at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo. She counsels colleges when First Amendment issues arise.

Like Moore, Ormond says that politics are more polarizing of late.

Also, she points to the fact that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE), which has a mission to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” initiated in 2014 a litigation project to challenge policies believed to violate rights to free speech. These challenges often revolve around the extent to which a campus can regulate the expressive activities of its students, including where on campus those activities can take place.

A handful of states have considered or passed free-speech legislation, including Arizona, Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The enormity and complexity of the topic led Moore and Juan Gutierrez of Orange Coast College to hold a one-day seminar through the National Council on Marketing and Public Relations, an affiliate council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

The audience — mostly public information officers (PIOs) — heard from college officials, communications professionals and lawyers, including Ormond, about the dicey issue.

“It behooves us as PIOs to educate as much as possible the interested parties at our campuses, letting them know what’s permissible and what’s not, and what’s advisable and what’s not and preparing them for the change in the atmosphere on our campuses right now,” Moore says.

Read the full article in the February/March issue of AACC’s Community College Journal.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.