College sued over gag zone

May 30, 2003

A student is suing a California college for limiting public speaking to three designated "free-speech areas" in the latest of a series of disputes involving freedom of expression on increasingly sensitive US campuses.

Last year Citrus College, a two-year community college near Los Angeles, restricted public expression to a designated zone in the centre of the campus and two other zones.

Speakers must inform the college police if they intend to express themselves inside these areas. If students stray outside, they face arrest and may be suspended or expelled.

In November, two anti-abortion protesters were arrested for stepping outside the free-speech zone.

Now student Chris Stevens is suing the college. He said he was blocked from organising a "pro-America" rally during the Iraq war and from spearheading a protest against cuts in the state education budget.

Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which has challenged several similar campus speech restrictions, said: "By quarantining free speech from the heart of campus, Citrus College shows contempt for both the ideals of higher education and the most essential values of a free society."

Fire was founded by two Princeton classmates, one a left-leaning lawyer from Boston and the other a libertarian conservative history professor from Philadelphia.

While the foundation professes to favour neither liberal nor conservative causes, it is often on the side of conservative students thwarted by liberal university administrations.

But Mr Stevens' lawyer is a former associate director of the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union.

Fire has already forced the University of Miami to grant official approval to a conservative student group after first rejecting its application for recognition.

The organisation, which proposed to promote "conservative principles and ideas", was denied the right to use university facilities on the grounds that the college Republicans already offered a conservative voice on campus.

The university reversed its decision after Fire managed to provoke generally critical media scrutiny.

Citrus spokeswoman Michelle Small said the college's public-speaking policy was intended "to prevent students who want to go to class, and who want to go into the library, from being disrupted".

She confirmed that two anti-abortion protesters were arrested for stepping outside the zone. Although there was no formal boundary, she said "they were given a map showing where they could stand".

The spokeswoman added that the school, which has 12,000 students, supported free speech.

She said: "There are organisations on campus, of which there are a wide variety of all kinds and persuasions, from gay and lesbian groups to Christian groups, that all have activities on a regular basis where they espouse their particular points of view.

"In the classrooms, it's just understood that all kinds of positions should be verbalised and should be listened to and discussed."

Citrus also bans "indecent" or "offensive" language anywhere on campus.

"Don't expect to see much great theatre on this campus any time soon," Mr Lukianoff said.

• Law enforcement officials say there are no indications that a pipe bomb that exploded in an empty Yale University classroom last week was terror-related. No one was hurt.

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