On Thursday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed a lawsuit against California's Clovis Community College, alleging that administrators plotted behind closed doors to take down a conservative student organization's flyers. Emails obtained by FIRE after a public records request reveal that college administrators coordinated how to censor the group, "fabricat[ing] a pretext" for their actions, according to FIRE's lawsuit.
In November 2021, Clovis' chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) received permission to place flyers around campus. The posters were critical of "leftism," listing the death tolls of various Communist regimes and the oppressive conditions for people living in them. However, the flyers quickly attracted complaints, with emails obtained by FIRE revealing administrators' discussions of the posters on November 8.
"Wanted to give you a heads up that there could be some problems with these posters," wrote Leslie King, a Clovis Community College administrator. "Patrick says that it's a gray area because of free speech…I've talked to several people that are very uncomfortable with it, and one person said they would file a harassment claim if these posters don't come down." Patrick Stumpf, another administrator, wrote that "we [sic] gladly take down" the posters.
Just a few days later, on November 12, Clovis President Lori Bennett ordered the posters to be taken down. "If you need a reason, you can let them know that [we] agreed they aren't club announcements," Bennett wrote to Clovis Dean of Student Services Gurdeep Sihota-Hebert. Sihota-Hebert also asked Bennett to keep the justification for taking down the posters secret: "Between you and me. Please don't share this email. Posters need to come down per administration."
"Clovis Community College maintains a 'Poster/Flyer Instructions' Policy (the Flyer Policy) that unconstitutionally prohibits flyers 'with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes,'" wrote FIRE in its lawsuit against the college. "Contrary to President Bennett's pretextual reason for removing Plaintiffs' flyers, neither the Flyer Policy nor Clovis's standard practice requires that student flyers must announce club meetings or events."
When the plaintiffs later applied to post pro-life posters on campus, Clovis administrators used the same reasoning to relegate their flyers to a "free speech kiosk," which FIRE describes as "a small box covered in rotting wood planks, [which] sits at the edge of a walkway students virtually never use because it does not lead to any building entrances or parking lots."
Clovis Community College's alleged actions seem to brazenly violate the First Amendment. Public college administrators cannot decide to unilaterally ban speech, or in this case, relegate it to a decaying "free speech kiosk" in a far-flung corner of campus, because they find it offensive or distasteful.
"Kiosks are for knock-off Ray-Bans, right? They're not for speech bans," FIRE attorney Gabe Walters tells Reason. "The idea that you can limit [speech] to something as small as a kiosk is just absurd on its face and I think somewhat Orwellian."
While much of the current campus free speech culture war focuses on well-known universities, stories like those at Clovis highlight the need to pay close attention to the civil rights violations that occur at smaller schools. Student protests at Yale or a speaker cancellation at MIT are worthy of attention, but they can easily distract from the fact that many students whose First Amendment rights are violated by a college or university attend lesser-known institutions.
"Clovis administrators say that they would gladly remove posters that they found offensive, and we're gladly suing them," Walters says, adding that Clovis' policies are "just facially unconstitutional….It's unconstitutionally overbroad. It's vague. And as applied to these students' speech, it's also viewpoint discrimination."