Free speech is a constitutional right. But the South Orange County Community College District has an unfortunate history of trying to limit how, where and when students can speak.
The district that operates Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College in effect wants students to raise their hands and ask to be recognized before speaking in settings outside the classroom on campus. A court this month struck down four provisions in the recently modified district policy governing when and where students can gather, the use of public address systems and access to buildings on campus.
The district knows it is heading down the wrong path because it now has lost two court challenges. The most recent rejection came March 18 when U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins sided with students who went to court to challenge district restrictions. Collins in 1999 sank another version of the policy because it wrongly limited the "time, place and manner of speech." The district also withdrew its policy on two other occasions before a judge could rule.
The district also has had its knuckles rapped for trying to rein in free speech by faculty members. Irvine Valley College professor Roy Bauer in August won another round in a long-running court fight sparked by a faculty newsletter that takes district officials to task. The court ruled that district officials acted unconstitutionally by reprimanding Bauer for the content in his newsletters.
Pourya Khademi, one of the students who filed the most recent lawsuit, knows firsthand the dangers of heavy-handed regulation. As a child in Iran, Khademi saw his parents jailed for reading a banned newspaper. Khademi's attorney complains that the board keeps banging its head against the constitutional right to free speech because it is "either getting bad advice [from its lawyers] or else the advice they want." But the board should understand instinctively the value of spirited debate in an academic community.
The district maintains it simply wants to protect students from unnecessary noise, reduce litter and ensure that college lawns and parking lots are well-maintained. Those are logical goals for administrators, but universities have an obligation to balance important real-world concerns against the overriding right to free speech.
At least, that's what students are being taught during introductory political science classes at Irvine Valley College. "Politics in America," the approved textbook sold at the college bookstore, underscores that "universities have a very special responsibility to protect freedom of expression.... A free and unfettered exchange of views is essential to the advancement of knowledge."
The district should go back to school and practice what it teaches.