Students sue community college district for putting restrictions on campus speech

Judge prohibits officials from enforcing policies

CALIFORNIA -- Welcome to Irvine Valley College, where the fight for free speech by professors and students has been going on for more than two years.

Along with faculty members (see Professor), students are upset over what they say are violations of their First Amendment rights that started when Raghu Mathur became president of the college. Some students have even decided to sue the school.

Irvine Valley students Diep Burbridge, Scott Stephansky and Dorothy Caruso filed a lawsuit in August against the South Orange Community College District, saying that their rights to free expression were being violated.

"President Mathur, certain administrators and board of trustee members were strategically suppressing students and faculty and reducing us to second-class citizens," Caruso said.

The students claim that the school is infringing on their rights by regulating where they can gather, post messages and pass out fliers.

"Suddenly, little glass boxes encased under lock and key showed up on our outside bulletin boards," Caruso said. "Anyone wanting to post there had to get permission, get their poster stamped, leave it there with student services who would go down, unlock the glass doors, place the flyer in, lock it up again, and in 14 days the person posting had to take down their poster."

But it is not only the wait they have to endure to post a sign that angers students. Sometimes academic offices were moved just to quiet dissenting voices on campus, Caruso said.

"The biology department had a front window, and in that window they displayed signs that said 'Mathur must go' and displayed grievances for students or anyone to read," Caruso said. "In a word, free speech."

Mathur threatened to take the signs down. The administration decided to move the offices instead, according to Caruso.

"They evidently reorganized their strategy and somehow forced the biology department to vacate their front office and placed them where they couldn't be seen or heard of by the outside public," Caruso said.

A federal judge agreed with the students and issued a preliminary injunction in September prohibiting the college from enforcing many of the restrictions described in the lawsuit. The judge removed a provision that prevented students from holding demonstrations or gatherings in all but a few designated areas on campus. She also said students should be allowed to use microphones or other amplification at rallies and demonstrations.

One of the students' main complaints was that they were not allowed to demonstrate in front of the student services center -- a major gathering spot for students on campus. The judge ruled that students should be allowed to demonstrate in front of the center.

The community college district appealed the preliminary injunction ruling, according to the students' attorney, Carol Sobel.

For now, however, the case has been put on hold because the district said it intends to adopt a new policy that will address the concerns expressed by the judge, Sobel said.

Sobel said she is not optimistic about the new policy, adding that she does not think it will help the case for free speech at the college.

"It's a broader policy that will restrict more speech, not just for the students but everybody on campus, except the administration," she said.

Cedric Sampson, chancellor of the district, and Mathur did not return phone calls made to their offices by the Report.

After the new policy is published, Sobel said she expects the case will be dropped, and students will have to file a new lawsuit to contest the constitutionality of the new policy.

The district first said it expected to have the new policy enacted by February, "but now they are saying April or May, and frankly I don't think they are going to have it by then," Sobel said.

Sobel said she has dealt with many lawsuits against the district.

"This will be the fourth challenge to a student speech policy in that district," she said.    

reports, Spring 2000