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Suit Aims at Rights of Speech

Orange County

Education: Students of South O.C. Community College District allege its policies on expression are unconstitutional.

February 15, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three students have sued South Orange County Community College District, challenging the constitutionality of its free-speech policy outlining how, when and where students air their views.

It marks the fourth time the district has been sued over the policy in the last four years, said Wendy Phillips, attorney for the students.

In the three previous cases, Phillips said, federal judges have struck down portions of the district's policies and ordered it to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees.

The current policy prohibits students from engaging in a variety of free-speech activities without permission from the district chancellor or presidents of the district's two colleges, the lawsuit alleges.

Activities requiring approval include distributing leaflets, posting something on a bulletin board, putting up a banner and using a loudspeaker at a rally.

The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by Irvine Valley College students Deb Burbridge, James Irvine and Pourya Khademi. Khademi also takes classes at Saddleback, the other college in the district.

Also sued are the district's seven-member board of trustees, two of whom are lawyers.

District spokeswoman Pam Zanelli did not return calls seeking comment.

The board approved its 31-page policy in May 2000.

"The policy is replete with unconstitutional statements," Phillips alleged. For example, she said, it says that if a conflict arises between the 1st Amendment and California law, state law takes precedence.

Under the 1st Amendment, permission should not be needed to speak in a public place, Phillips said. "A college campus is a well-established public forum," she said.

Also, she said, the policy allows anyone who objects to a bulletin board item to remove it.

That, the lawsuit says, "is even more pernicious as it authorizes anyone to act as a rogue censor. This provision is an unparalleled hecklers' veto."

The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending itself in court in recent years, losing most cases.

Besides challenging its free-speech policies, lawsuits have attempted to punish a professor for negative comments in his faculty newsletter about Raghu Mathur, who recently was promoted from Irvine Valley president to district chancellor.

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