By Michael Kleen
Campus speech codes and other rules governing expression at public colleges and universities have long been controversial. Now, Rock Valley College (RVC) could find itself in hot water over its policies concerning which students have access to campus bulletin boards and which do not.
Dominic Celletti, a criminal justice student at RVC, is filing suit in federal court over what he alleges was a systematic infringement on his freedom of speech by administrators at the college.
A letter sent last October by the Rutherford Institute to Jack Becherer, president of RVC, explained the incident that led to the civil suit.
Sept. 2, 2011, Celletti approached staff at the Student Life Center about his ability to post fliers around campus urging students to get involved in civil rights issues. The flier was a simple design featuring a call for students to read the U.S. Constitution and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, with Celletti’s phone number.
“As you can see,” a staff attorney at the Rutherford Institute wrote, “the flyers are not offensive or inflammatory and simply urge people to stand up for their civil liberties and become knowledgeable about their constitutional rights.”
When Celletti inquired about posting the fliers, however, he was told he was not allowed to post on campus bulletin boards because he was not a member of a campus club. As a non-affiliated student, he could be given access to one “free” and one “event” board in the Student Center Building.
According to RVC student policies and regulations, “There shall be no posting of signs or written information on campus grounds except as permitted by RVC policies/procedures, or as approved by the Manager, Student Life.” Furthermore, “If there are any conflicts with these regulations the Manager, Student Life will have the authority to approve or disapprove the request using their discretion.”
The RVC posting policies, Celletti’s complaint alleges, effectively create two classes of people at the college when it comes to access to a free speech platform: those who are members of an officially recognized club and those who are not.
The free speech rights of non-affiliated students are significantly restricted, while campus clubs have a venue to promote their views. Additionally, the Student Life Manager has too much arbitrary control over what is posted and what is not.
This environment seems to run counter to one of the core values of the college, which is to “promote, celebrate, and accept diversity, including cultural and ethnic diversity, diversity of thought, and diverse views of others.”
It also, according to the Rutherford Institute, violates the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. As a partially federally-funded institution, RVC must uphold these guarantees.
Under the First Amendment, RVC’s regulations concerning on-campus speech must be content-neutral, narrowly and clearly defined, and leave open ample alternative channels for communication. The current policy seems to fail on all three of these counts.
Celletti’s lawsuit alleges RVC’s policies also exercise unconstitutional prior restraint. According to his complaint, the policies confer on the college “substantial power, and unfettered discretion, to prohibit or restrict free speech activities in public campus forums. The policies and staff discriminate based on the content or viewpoint of speech by suppressing disfavored speech, thereby causing a real and substantial threat of censorship.”
If the federal court finds in his favor, Celletti asks that the court issue an injunction enjoining (to compel to stop) the defendants (RVC president, student life manager and board of trustees), as well as other RVC staff, from restricting speech on RVC campus. He also asks for a public written apology by the defendants, to be published in local newspapers and read out loud at a press conference, as well as court costs and $1 from each defendant.
Freedom of speech, thought and expression, especially of a political nature, should be cherished and promoted on college campuses, especially if they are public institutions. That is a cornerstone of a free society.
While some restrictions on campus fliers are reasonable, such restrictions should be clearly defined and apply equally to all students, whether they are members of a student organization or not.
All too often, members of public bodies act as though they are free to do whatever they want. By accepting public funds, however, RVC must also accept it is subject to constitutional restraints. There is no excuse for the arbitrary exercise of authority alleged in Celletti’s complaint, and I hope RVC changes its policies and opens its public forums to all its students.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the Sept. 5-11, 2012, issue