Hafez Karimi is a political science major and familiar face at Fullerton College. He loves Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Bernie Sanders. Karimi has become a successful political activist on campus, always encouraging his fellow students to exercise their rights and get out and vote.
He can be found petitioning for Sanders while standing on a patch of grass outside the cafeteria.
This area has been deemed by the North Orange County Community College District as a “free speech zone”. A free speech zone is an area set aside in public locations for the purpose of political protesting, exercise of free speech and petitioning.
Recently, questions of the legality of these zones have arisen.
In 2014, the Citrus College District was sued by student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle after he felt his First Amendment rights were violated as a result of the district’s free speech zone policy.
Where does Fullerton College Stand?
The NOCCCD Board Policy regarding free speech outlines the parameters in which Cypress, Fullerton and the School of Continuing Education may regulate free speech.
Section 2.0 states “This policy is designed to encourage students who want to attend class and study in a peaceful and quiet setting to do so without substantial disruption.”
Although it appears to have the students’ safety, well-being and rights in mind, closer examination into the policy tells a different story.
In Section 5.0, it is stated that “The campuses of the District are non-public forums, except for those areas that are designated free speech assembly area(s), which are limited public forums.”
By naming the entire campus except for designated free speech zones, which have been named limited-public forums, the NOCCCD is directly violating both Federal and State rights of students.
A non-public forum, as defined by Cornell University Law School, “are forums for public speech that are neither traditional public forums nor designated public forums. Government restrictions on speech in nonpublic forums must be reasonable, and may not discriminate based on speakers’ viewpoints.”
US Civil Liberties states that “ speech in a ‘‘nonpublic forum’’ receives relatively little protection by the courts, [so] freedom of speech depends very much on how a court initially categorizes the public property on which the government would restrict speech.”
Defining an area as a non-public forum means that the exercise of free speech can be substantially monitored and receives little to no protection from the law.
At Fullerton, those wishing to speak must visit the Fullerton College Switchboard located in the 100 building, request time to speak in the zones and provide a few details according to the Director of Campus Communications Lisa McPheron.
Individuals are presented with a form that requests they provide their name, the organization they’re representing, the date and time they’ll be using the zone, how many participants there will be and a signature from the requester.
Those seeking to utilize the zone may only be present for up to one business day and must arrive at the zone approximately 15 minutes prior to their requested time according to the Free Speech Area Reservation Process.
At the top of the form in all capital letters it reads: “Must not approach students and stay in designated areas”.
This requirement stems from Section 2.0 in guaranteeing students freedom from “substantial disruption.”
“The problem isn’t so much getting permission, it’s the first come first serve policy,” Karimi says in regards to the process.
According to McPheron, the first come first serve policy takes precedent towards students, but allows fairness in the distribution of time and space within the zones.
Fullerton College is a public college, which usually connotes that the grounds should be considered at least a limited public forum, and should allow free speech all over campus-from the middle of the quad to the sidewalks surrounding the campus.
However, because of the NOCCCD’s policy, this is not the case.
Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of Student Press Law Center, says that “The areas of a state college or university that are open to public foot traffic are, at the very least, a limited public forum — and some of those areas, like the sidewalks, are traditional public forums where speech restrictions are almost impossible to justify.”
“A college can’t just opt itself out of the First Amendment by declaration,” he added.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
State laws differ with federal ones from time to time, but when it comes to free speech, California is on the same page.
California’s State Constitution states that “SEC. 2. (a) Every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right. A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press.”
The board is in direct violation of this right.
In 1992 the Leonard Law was passed in California in hopes of securing students right’s on campus.
It was amended in 2006 to include community colleges and states that “… nor any California community college district may enforce any rule that subjects a student to disciplinary sanctions if the student is engaged in conduct or speech that is protected by either the California Constitution or the First Amendment of the United States Constitution if such conduct or speech would have occurred off campus.”
The law then goes on to say “(d) This section does not prohibit the imposition of discipline for harassment, threats, or intimidation, unless constitutionally protected.”
This is where the NOCCCD found their loophole.
In Section 3.0 it states that the implementation of the free speech zones has six points in mind, number one being the health and safety of its students.
A loophole in which Samantha Harris, a representative for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said is reasonable.
“Having the students’ safety and well-being as a top priority is reasonable, however placing prior restraint on individuals is not,” she said.
“Instead of placing restrictions on students as to where they can speak, they should be able to expect reasonable self-restraint from the students.”
Because of their clever wording, the NOCCCD and Fullerton College have been able to get away with violating student’s rights.
Nikki Moore, Legislative Activist with California Newspaper Association, said that “The school can’t close them [the sidewalks] down, and justify that closing by designating a plot or two on campus where it will allow students to speak and assemble freely.”
“The District’s Board Policy 3900 concerning free speech and free expression has been reviewed and approved by our legal counsel and is totally in compliance with the education code and all applicable federal and state statutes,” said Kai Sterns Moore, District Director of Public and Governmental Affairs, when asked for comment regarding conclusions made by LoMonte, Moore and Harris.
Students for Life, an unofficial club on campus, set up a display regarding women’s choices other than abortion in the middle of the quad on March 30.
They were approached by campus security two times.
The first time they were approached, the girls were told to take down their display, visit the Switchboard to fill out a sign in sheet and set back up in the designated free speech zone.
One of the girls respectfully denied sighting that would be a violation of her First Amendment right.
The second time the advocates were approached they again were asked to move to the free speech zone; and again the girl denied.
Campus security was never forceful, but could be seen patrolling the area while they were still set up.
This incident occurred because the NOCCCD’s board policy, regarding Section 5.0, allowed it.
A section LoMonte stated “clearly is not consistent with the way federal courts have interpreted the First Amendment.”
There is a loophole for students and visitors as well. If the individual is distributing voter registration forms, then they do not have to remain in the zone and may set up anywhere on campus according to McPheron.
This allows petitioners like Karimi and other “paid-per-signature” groups to have more freedom on campus.
But for those not doing such, the board policy confines them to small, grassy areas.
In the case of Citrus College, Sinapi-Riddle took one step out of the zone and was threatened by campus security to be removed from the grounds.
Although Fullerton College isn’t that radical, the free speech zones provide anything but freedom.
As defined by the NOCCCD Board policy, “(2.1) At Cypress College, the designated free speech assembly areas are: 1) the stage area at the northeast end of the lake; 2) the area at the west end of the Gateway Plaza; and 3) the area generally located around the lake and near the Students’ Activity Center, Library/Learning Resource Center, and the Science, Engineering & Mathematics (SEM) Building.”
Whereas “(2.2) At Fullerton College, the designated free speech assembly area is the south end of the quad. A Free Speech Board is located north of Building 200.”
Cypress College is 20 acres larger than Fullerton, but has only a little over half of the student body its sister school does.
With more students per acre, it would seem that Fullerton should be facilitating a larger zone.
“The District’s Board Policy 3900 concerning free speech and free expression has been reviewed and approved by our legal counsel and is totally in compliance with the education code and all applicable federal and state statutes,” Kai Sterns Moore, District Director of Public & Governmental Affairs.
NOCCCD’s law group maintains a policy of no communication with the media.
The Office of General Counsel for the California State Universities outlined freedom of speech on college campuses in their Free-Speech-Handbook in 2009.
“Requirements that call for advance notice, registration or permits before speech activity can occur are presumed to be unreasonable, as they can “drastically burden free speech,” particularly on college campuses, which are recognized as “center[s] for free intellectual debate.”
The NOCCCD is not alone in this, as organizations across the nation have been accused of the same violation. This begs the question of whether their policies will change in the foreseeable future, or if they will continue with their practices.