The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

FIRE Challenges College Removal of Posters Criticizing "Leftist Ideas," Restriction of Anti-Abortion Flyers

The Clovis Community College policy bans "posters with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes."


From the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression's press release, which links to relevant documents (including the Complaint):

Three conservative college students wanted to criticize authoritarianism. But when administrators deemed their opinions inappropriate and offensive, the students found themselves facing an oppressive regime right on campus.

Today, students from a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, sued California's Clovis Community College, delivering a simple message: Public colleges cannot ban students' flyers because administrators subjectively deem their political viewpoints inappropriate or offensive….

In November 2021, Alejandro and fellow club members Daniel Flores and Juliette Colunga received permission from administrators to hang three flyers on bulletin boards inside Clovis' academic buildings. The flyers advocated for freedom and listed the death tolls of communist regimes.

Emails obtained via a public records request reveal that soon after the flyers went up, a Clovis administrator wrote that he would "gladly" take the flyers down, following complaints about their content. The administrator also wrote that approving the flyers in the first place may have been a "mistake," and that Clovis instead should have censored them under a policy that states: "Posters with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes are not permitted and will not be approved."

On Nov. 12, Clovis President Lori Bennett personally ordered the flyers removed. After doing so, she searched for a reason to justify the viewpoint discrimination, inventing a brand new rule requiring flyers to double as club announcements.

"If you need a reason, you can let them know that [we] agreed they aren't club announcements," Bennett wrote. Clovis does not have a policy on the books that requires flyers to be club announcements. But with this excuse in hand, Clovis employees told student workers to remove the flyers.

Administrators later used that pretextual justification to stop the students from hanging a new set of five pro-life flyers — which the students submitted for approval in December — on the bulletin boards inside heavily trafficked campus buildings. Instead, administrators banished the flyers to a rotting "free speech kiosk" in a desolate part of campus. [The Complaint alleges that "Other students and clubs regularly post flyers with political and social commentary or themes on the indoor  bulletin boards of the Academic Centers. Defendants do not require those students or groups to take their flyers down and only post them to the Free Speech Kiosk." -EV] …

Public colleges like Clovis are bound by the First Amendment, and it is unconstitutional to treat student groups differently based on their viewpoints. Clovis' vague policy banning "inappropriate" or "offense [sic]" themes — terms that could apply to just about anything — puts protected expression in jeopardy by allowing administrators to arbitrarily decide which opinions are inappropriate or offensive and which deserve to be heard.

Note: I have consulted for FIRE on a different matter, but I wasn't at all involved with this controversy, and wasn't asked to write about it.