California college settles First Amendment suit with student

A California community college has settled a lawsuit with a student who claimed it violated his First Amendment rights when an administrator threatened him for collecting petition signatures outside of a small, designated "free speech zone."

Student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sued Glendora, Calif., Citrus College after the incident, which occurred on Sept. 17, 2013 - the day designated as "Constitution Day." Sinapi-Riddle was collecting signatures for a petition condemning the federal National Security Agency's domestic surveillance activities. When he left the area for a lunch break and headed to the student center, he and another student discussed the petition, prompting an administrator to intervene, according to FIRE. Claiming that a political discussion could not take place outside of the free speech zone, the unidentified school employee threatened to eject Sinapi-Riddle from campus for violating the policy.


“I feel that free speech and the ability to express oneself freely is a very important right for all students,” said Sinapi-Riddle.

After a suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the school agreed to pay Sinapi-Riddle $110,000 in damages and attorneys' fees, as well as to revise its free speech policies. In a statement, the school noted the settlement figure was far less than the anticipated cost of fighting the lawsuit and defended its policies as in compliance "with a long line of U.S. Supreme Court cases relating to speech activities in public places, including college campuses." But the school affirmed its support for free speech and agreed to change some campus regulations.

"Freedom of expression is crucial in the higher education community, and the District and its Board of Trustees have done much to protect and advance this cherished right," the statement read. "As part of the settlement, the District will be implementing new procedures that will expand its current free speech area to include most open spaces on campus, enhance the District’s co-curricular program by streamlining internal procedures that apply to activities of recognized student clubs and organizations, and help to ensure the safety and security of students involved in such activities."

FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said his group had taken on Citrus College before, and reached a similar agreement, only to have the school go back to the old policy.

"Citrus College agreed to eliminate its restrictive 'free speech zone' in the face of a FIRE lawsuit back in 2003, but later reinstated its speech quarantine when it thought no one was watching," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in a statement on the group's website. "But FIRE was watching, and we’ll continue to do so. If the speech codes come back again, so will we."

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