State college no place for political speech


Court rules school can remove campaign Web site posted by student





CALIFORNIA — A student who thought he was just getting involved with a political campaign has ended up suing his university.

Chris Landers is appealing the decision of the Los Angeles Superior Court, which ruled that Cal. State-Northridge did not violate his First Amendment right to free speech by creating a restrictive computer policy that justified their removal of the Web site that Landers created for state senate candidate John Birke.

University officials argued that the campaign Web site violated laws against using state-owned computers for political activity.

Landers considers the school’s Internet server a public forum and believes it is illegal for school officials to censor his political expression.

Birke and Landers believe the university may have been motivated to remove the Web site for fear of a lawsuit from Birke’s incumbent opponent, Sen. Cathie Wright.

In addition to information supporting Birke, the site featured an image of Wright which slowly morphed into a skull above the headline, “Help Kick Cathie Wright’s Tobacco $ Habit.” This message was intended as an attack on Wright for accepting donations from tobacco companies.

Several months after posting his site, Landers learned that Wright was investigating it and had hinted that the site violated fair use of state property rules.

In a letter to Ron Kopita, vice president of student affairs, Landers asked for a copy of the university’s guidelines for personal Web sites and informed Cal. State of Wright’s investigation.

A week later, the university removed Landers’ site.

During the discovery phase of the suit, Landers’ counsel learned that one of Wright’s staff members suggested to a Cal. State administrator that Wright would have pursued legal action against the university had they not removed Landers’ Web site.

“Some officials got scared and did not want to thumb their noses at government officials who sponsored Cal. State funding,” said Birke.

Wright denies that she would have filed a lawsuit. “I wouldn’t have sued, though the site was illegal. I never considered the candidate a threat, anyway. A lawsuit would have just created more publicity for him.”

University officials claimed the Web site violated school policy and state laws against using state-owned resources for political activity.

Landers argues, “The university is a public forum where people should be able to express themselves and their views.”

The court granted Landers’ request for a preliminary injunction in January 1997, and stated that the University could not constitutionally suppress political expression on its Web site.

Judge Diane Wayne wrote, “The policy of the university to make its computer server and systems available to its students and employees created a public forum for their use. Promoting a particular candidate is individual expression.”

In response, Cal. State decided to create a new, severely restricting, computer use policy which changed the system from being a “right” of students into a “privilege.”

“Use of computers, networks, and computing facilities for activities other than academic purposes or University business is not permitted,” reads the new policy.

The previous policy, in place when Landers created the Web site, encouraged students to, “Enjoy all of the many personal uses of the computer.”

Landers claims that the Committee that created this new policy was, “playing ping-pong with the rules.”

Minutes to the drafting meetings reveal that several faculty members were uncomfortable with the new policy and believed it was important for users to be able to communicate freely.

The Superior Court decided that this new policy created a nonpublic forum which effectively mooted Landers’ claim that he was exercising his free expression rights in a public forum.

About the new policy Judge David Horowitz wrote, “It is a forum limited both as to who may speak and topics upon which they may speak. There is no unlimited public component to the forum.”

Birke disagrees.

“The Court ruled that a state [university] can do what a private shopping center cannot do.” He cited a case that found circulating information regarding political positions outside a super market protected speech under California law because the super market constituted a public forum.

In 1987, a federal district court ruled that the California State University system could not prohibit student newspapers from publishing editorials endorsing candidates or ballot issues.

An attorney for Cal. State said the school is not required to maintain a public forum forever.

“If you have an empty field where rallies are held and it is considered a public forum, you still cannot preclude a building from being built there [and thus precluding its use for rallies],” said Donna Ziegler from the Chancellor’s office.

Birke, who was assisting counsel for Landers, thinks the decision could have dangerous consequences.

“The Court is basically saying that a state university has an interest in preventing students from getting involved in political campaigns, especially local campaigns.”

Landers filed his appeal in November.


reports, Winter 1997-98