EL CAJON, Calif. A California college district has withdrawn a disciplinary hearing against a student for distributing religious fliers in the same location where other groups promoted non-religious activities. However, the college district said it is not planning to revise the policy that led to the problem for another six months.
"The university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, not a place where free speech is a punishable offense," said Legal Counsel David Hacker. "We commend Grossmont College for dropping the unjustified disciplinary hearing against our client, but as the Constitution requires, the college still needs to take prompt action and change its vague distribution policy to prevent any future discrimination against faith-based groups and activities. We'll be monitoring the situation to ensure that the necessary changes are made."
In May, a student was denied the use of tables and chairs for the National Day of Prayer event a Christian club on campus was organizing, even though the club had made reservations in advance as stipulated by the school's policy. When the student later distributed fliers for the event in front of the student center, the same location where other groups promoted non-religious activities, the associate dean instructed her to stop, citing college district policy. The college then took punitive action against the student by initiating a formal disciplinary hearing and placing an academic hold on the student's account.
Grossmont's policy "designates the District's campuses as non-public forums" that do not allow freedom of speech for students except for limited areas subject to revocation at any time. The policy requires students "register with the Student Affairs Office prior to speaking, presenting, or distributing material." The policy also requires students to register and receive permission to use college facilities or distribute fliers 10 business days in advance.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), sent a letter to the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in El Cajon, Calif. that they were in violation of the student's constitutional rights to free speech.
Alliance Defending Freedom's letter explained that "federal courts in California and the Ninth Circuit have held that a college campus is a public forum" and that "students are permitted to engage in expressive activities on community college campuses." Courts have struck down policies that are "designed to stifle and punish the exercise of First Amendment rights," explains the letter, which concludes that "the District's policies are not content-neutral because they allow administrators to regulate speech without any criteria restraining their decisions."
"America's colleges and universities should recognize the constitutionally protected rights of Christian students just as they do for all other students," added Hacker. "Students of faith should not be penalized or discriminated against for expressing their beliefs. Grossmont College's policy needs to reflect this so that students will have no fear of exercising their freedom of speech this fall."
UCLA, Virginia Tech, and several other universities have recently made policy changes in response to Alliance Defending Freedom letters.