Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle

Citrus College student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle alleges, among other things, that an administrator threatened to eject him from the campus for circulating an anti-NSA petition outside the small area on the campus quad that the college has designated a "free speech area."" (Los Angeles Times / June 30, 2014)

College campuses ought to be — but often aren't — bastions of free speech. Sometimes it's students who choke off debate, as occurred last year when hecklers at Brown University drowned out a speech by New York City's police commissioner. But some college officials also suppress speech. According to a lawsuit filed this week, that was the case at Citrus College in Glendora.

The lawsuit against the Citrus Community College District was brought by a student named Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle with the assistance of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that promotes free speech at colleges and universities. It is one of four lawsuits filed by lawyers for FIRE this week.

Sinapi-Riddle alleges, among other things, that an administrator threatened to eject him from the campus for circulating an anti-National Security Agency petition outside the small area on the campus quad that the college has designated a "free speech area."

A court may have to sort out some factual allegations, but there's no dispute that Citrus College over the years has taken a cramped view of free speech. In declaring most of the campus a "non-public forum" and in limiting petitioning, pamphleting and protesting to the designated free-speech area, it cites the need to prevent "substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the college." But students circulating petitions or holding signs aren't any rational person's idea of a substantial disruption. And forcing speakers to congregate in a tiny space — in this case, 1.37% of the entire campus — undermines the effectiveness of their advocacy. It's no more appropriate at a college than it is in any other community.

"Orderly operation" isn't the only justification offered by colleges for suppressing or rationing speech. Often censorship is rationalized in the higher cause of protecting students from offense or racial or sexual harassment. But many of these policies are overbroad and go far beyond punishing face-to-face abuse or intimidation.

According to a study by FIRE, of 23 California State University campuses surveyed by the group, 12 were rated "red" for having at least one policy that "clearly and substantially restricts" free speech. All colleges and universities should foster environments that protect free speech, but public colleges as extensions of the state have a constitutional obligation to do so.

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the 1st Amendment," the Supreme Court has said, "it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." On too many campuses, that lesson isn't being taught — or learned.