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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Southwestern College and Free Speech

Turmoil at a community college in my very own backyard of San Diego -- if these facts are accurate, it is a very disturbing story: the suspension of three college professors for protesting university policies at a peaceful gathering with their students. I am surprised that the story has not been picked up by the more mainstream media so we will await further details on how this unfolds. Here is the recap, via Torch, the blog of Fire, foundation for individual rights in education:

[A] group of students and faculty assembled on October 22 in SWC's "free speech area" to protest various actions of the college. One of the students then said, "Let's go where they can hear us," at which point some students went to the location of President Chopra's office. The group was met by campus police officers and was prevented from speaking to Chopra. Three faculty members were with the group of students for different amounts of time during the students' conversation with the police officers, and they left separately.

Later that evening, the three professors were hand-delivered letters signed by Chopra at their off-campus homes, informing them that they were banned from campus due to an unspecified "matter" and were not even permitted to use campus e-mail or other resources. Just as chillingly, according to other reports, campus police officers have recently been attending peaceful gatherings of students and faculty, and students involved in such meetings and protests have been summoned to the president's office. No reason immediately presents itself for such treatment of SWC community members other than the administration's desire to restrict and discourage any views critical of SWC. A culture of fear, retribution, and intimidation has taken shape on SWC's campus.

What is this "free speech" area that Southwestern has zoned? According to Torch, the letters suspending the three college professors cite the California Penal Code Section 626.4  which permits a college's chief administrative officer to ban someone from campus "whenever there is reasonable cause to believe that such person has willfully disrupted the orderly operation of such campus or facility." Hard to believe this used against faculty members who join their students in protest. My understanding is that the protest concerned various budget cuts that affected the students. Hopefully more details to come to light through serious investigative reporting.

Posted by Orly Lobel on November 4, 2009 at 05:39 PM | Permalink


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Disturbing in its specifics, but not that unusual, unfortunately, in terms of the policies that were apparently being enforced. Repressive free speech policies and expressive zoning tactics are, unfortunately, all too common in these places. As in this case, the speech zones are sometimes quite small (at one large Texas university campus, officials at one point confined "free speech" to a small gazebo) and are not always centrally located. As I argue in Chapter 8 of my book, Speech Out of Doors, many campuses now have a "Campus Order Management System" that mirrors the free speech bureaucracy (permits, zones, etc.) in place outside campus gates. The fact that faculty have apparently been sanctioned is unusual, as are the purported "banishment" and communications restrictions.

Posted by: Tim Zick | Nov 4, 2009 5:56:44 PM

thanks Tim, yes apparently the free speech zone at the college was absurdly small. I will look up your book.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Nov 4, 2009 6:39:50 PM

Just to be clear, the "Southwestern" mentioned in Orly's post is Southwestern College, and is in no way affiliated with Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, where I work.

Posted by: Dave | Nov 4, 2009 7:08:47 PM

FWIW, I think Tim's book is excellent (and it's available in pbk.), although if there's a second edition, I hope it will include either a list of References or Bibliography.

And one book I don't think Tim had occasion to mention but is very interesting by way of (recent) historical perspective (and no doubt I'm being a bit nostalgic) is the volume edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik: The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002). Consider, for instance, the following from the preface by Leon F. Litwak about the Berkeley campus of the University of California in the late '50s and early '60s:

"For much of the twentieth century Berkeley, like most campuses, tended to be a white, middle-class enclave, a haven of privilege and conformity. When I was an underclassman there, the mechanisms of repression and surveillance were very much in place, along with overly protective and vigilant administrators. In our political science and history classes we studied the Constitution, but outside of the classroom we were advised to be cautious and prudent in practicing the freedoms the Bill of Rights guaranteed. Controversial speakers were excluded from campus, University rules forbade using the college grounds for partisan political activity, and the Board of Regents insisted on monitoring the loyalty of each faculty member through an oath. Under these conditions, student activism was not simply inhibited; it was intimidated. One searched with difficulty for a rebel or a reformer, let alone a Marxist, and it became increasingly difficult to find anyone who felt very strongly about anything. [....] What this volume makes clear is that the rights enjoyed by UC students in the late twentieth century did not come easily. The University--regents and administrators alike--did not yield power quickly or graciously. (It has been said of administrators that they act wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.) The victories required extraordinary commitment, they had to be fought for, they had to be won by unrelenting agitation, and much of the credit belongs to a generation of students often denigrated for their excesses--the generation whose presence and historical legacy is the centerpiece of this book."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 4, 2009 7:29:59 PM


It's hard to confuse a community college in San Diego, as Orly identified it, with a law school in Los Angeles! Furthermore, I don't think there are any community colleges in California associated with law schools.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 4, 2009 7:52:45 PM

We here in the California community college system appreciate your concern regarding the Southwestern College situation. This sort of bullying and intimidation of faculty critics does occur here with some frequency. Ten years ago, my district (the South Orange County Community College District) went after me with similar ruthlessness when my district newsletter (Dissent) shined a light on the board and Chancellor’s embarrassing actions and policies. (It probably didn’t help that I had twice successfully sued the district over the board’s violations of the Open Meetings Law.) I was ordered to the Chancellor’s office and accused by him of violating the district’s anti-discrimination and violence-in-the-workplace policies (the Federal judge later called this “Orwellian”). He ordered me to go to “anger management” counseling. I was not the sole victim of such tactics.

Posted by: Roy Bauer | Nov 8, 2009 3:27:39 PM

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