ACLU Response to Southwestern College President’s Interview

In answering a series of questions posed by the San Diego Union-Tribune in today’s “Our Region” section, Southwestern College President Raj Chopra denies infringing on free speech rights on his campus. The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties reiterates its serious concerns that the college violated paramount rights to freedom of speech. The ACLU remains committed to taking whatever actions are necessary and appropriate to enforce the paramount right to freedom of speech in a public college.

As the ACLU noted in our demand letter, sent to President Chopra on November 9, 2009, the state and federal constitutions uphold the highest possible commitment to free speech and assembly. Public colleges must encourage this principal commitment to free expression except on the limited occasions when speech “seriously disrupts instruction or free passage.”

In the limited article that did not include differing voices or opinions, the facts of the dispute over free expression at Southwestern College were not made clear. First, Southwestern College has declared virtually the entire campus as a “non-public forum,” leaving a single patio as its “free-speech zone.”

Southwestern College has twice unlawfully ordered students to disperse rallies outside the “free-speech zone,” and there are serious concerns that the college illegally retaliated against faculty who participated in the first assembly.

California law does not allow a college to declare—as Southwestern College has done—most of the campus off-limits to free speech. While schools may adopt reasonable regulations of the time, place, and manner of conducting expression, the state Education Code declares that community colleges “shall be open to public debate,” further undermining President Chopra’s designation of the campus as a “non-public forum.” As the California Supreme Court has long made clear, “The government has no valid interest in restricting or prohibiting speech or speech-related activity simply in order to avert the sort of disturbance, argument or unrest which is inevitably generated by the expression of ideas which are controversial and invite dispute.”

The ACLU and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) continue to press Southwestern College to revise its policies and allow free speech and assembly throughout the campus. Sadly, President Chopra’s comments in today’s San Diego Union-Tribune interview were defensive and laid the blame for the campus’s free-speech policies on the previous administration. While we appreciate President Chopra’s statement that he “will look at this existing policy and see where changes need to be made,” the college must revise its policies as soon as possible to comply with clear state and federal law.