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Orange County

District Is Muzzling Free Speech, Judge Rules

Courts: South County community colleges' student policy exercised prior restraint, she says. School decries decision.

March 19, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County community college district's policy prohibiting students from engaging in certain free-speech activities without permission from administrators is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The judge found that South Orange County Community College District was exercising prior restraint in requiring approval for distributing leaflets in certain areas, posting information on a bulletin board, putting up a banner and using a loudspeaker at a rally.

It was the second time U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins found the district's free-speech policy wanting. On two other occasions, the college district withdrew versions of the policy before a judge could rule. Collins suggested Monday that district officials consult a constitutional law expert when redrafting the policy.

Allan Wilion, the district's attorney, said the college district's governing board would probably appeal the ruling.

"This case is not over," he said. "We disagree with the court's ruling vociferously."

But Carol Sobel, who represented the three student plaintiffs, said the district's track record on its free-speech policy indicates that it "is either getting bad advice [from its lawyers] or else the advice they want."

Most of those rules requiring permission of a college president or the district's chancellor were put in place after Raghu Mathur was appointed president of Irvine Valley College in 1997. His appointment led to protests from faculty and students.

Earlier this year, Mathur was appointed chancellor of the district, which also includes Saddleback College.

Sobel said the 32-page policy, adopted in May 2000, required written permission for students to hand out the student paper or to pass class notes to each other. The policy also allows anyone who objects to a bulletin board posting to remove it.

Wilion defended the rules, saying, "We're just trying to get a speech policy passed that's reasonable.... We looked up many speech policies. It says we have a right to control our property.''

The board passed the policy, 4 to 3. Board President Donald Wagner, a lawyer, voted against it.

"I thought it was trouble, so the [judge's] decision makes a lot of sense," Wagner said Monday.

But Wilion said the judge used the wrong legal standard. "There are certain legal rulings that are made," he said. "It doesn't mean they are correct."

For one of the plaintiffs, the ruling had special meaning. Pourya Khademi, a student at Irvine Valley, saw his parents jailed in Iran for reading a banned opposition newspaper. "Politics and freedom of expression have in a most direct and fundamental way shaped my life," he said.

Khademi recalled the night the authorities took away his parents, who were both politically involved. His mother was a government social worker; his father was a financial manager for Iran's largest import-export company.

The family left Iran in 1986 and came to the United States in 1995. Khademi became an American citizen a few weeks before the last presidential election.

"I came to America from a completely repressive government of Iran," he said. "My imagination was this was the land of the free. Little did know I would be confronted with things like this. It's very emotional and personal for me, a restatement of 1st Amendment rights.''

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