FRESNO, Calif., Oct. 17, 2022 — On Friday, a federal district court judge ordered Clovis Community College to abandon an unconstitutional speech code that resulted in the suppression of conservative students’ viewpoints.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression secured a preliminary injunction in its lawsuit on behalf of three students from a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom who wanted to criticize authoritarianism. Clovis maintained a vague and overbroad policy that prohibited students from posting flyers that contained inappropriate or offensive language, using it to ban the students’ flyers. In her decision, Judge Jennifer L. Thurston wrote that the policy “undermines the school’s own interest in fostering a diversity of viewpoints on campus, thus frustrating, rather than promoting, the College’s basic educational mission.”
“We wanted to criticize authoritarian governments, but we had no idea that our own college would try to stop us,” said YAF-Clovis founder Alejandro Flores. “I’m glad we fought back, because all students should be able to speak out at college.”
The court’s order makes clear that the First Amendment does not permit administrators to regulate the content of student speech by claiming that, once students post a flyer, it becomes the college’s speech. As Clovis goes back to the drawing board with their posting policy, administrators should heed the court’s warning that “a government entity cannot avoid constitutional requirements merely by declaring it can do so.”
“The court told Clovis what we’ve been telling them all along: You can’t censor students just because you don’t like their message,” said FIRE attorney Jeff Zeman. “The fight isn’t over. We’ve defeated this unconstitutional policy, but we won’t stop until Clovis treats all student speech equally.”
In November 2021, Alejandro and fellow club members Daniel Flores and Juliette Colunga received permission from administrators to hang three flyers on bulletin boards inside Clovis’ academic buildings. The flyers advocated for freedom and listed the death tolls of communist regimes.
Emails obtained via a public records request reveal that soon after the flyers went up, a Clovis administrator wrote that he would “gladly” take the flyers down, following complaints about their content. The administrator also wrote that approving the flyers in the first place may have been a “mistake,” and that Clovis instead should have censored them under a policy that states: “Posters with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes are not permitted and will not be approved.”
On Nov. 12, Clovis President Lori Bennett personally ordered the flyers removed. After doing so, she searched for a reason to justify the viewpoint discrimination, inventing a brand new rule requiring flyers to double as club announcements.
“If you need a reason, you can let them know that [we] agreed they aren’t club announcements,” Bennett wrote to Clovis staff. Clovis does not have a policy on the books that requires flyers to be club announcements. But with this excuse in hand, Clovis employees told student workers to remove the flyers.
Administrators later used that pretextual justification to stop the students from hanging a new set of five pro-life flyers — which the students submitted for approval in December — on the bulletin boards inside heavily trafficked campus buildings. Instead, administrators banished the flyers to a rotting “free speech kiosk” in a desolate part of campus.
Public colleges like Clovis are bound by the First Amendment, and it is unconstitutional to treat student groups differently based on their viewpoints. Clovis’ vague policy banning “inappropriate” or “offense [sic]” themes — terms that could apply to just about anything — puts protected expression in jeopardy by allowing administrators to arbitrarily decide which opinions are inappropriate or offensive and which deserve to be heard.
FIRE filed the lawsuit on Aug. 11, aiming to hold the college president and three other administrators responsible in their personal and official capacities. By suing these defendants as individuals, not just in their official capacities as Clovis administrators, FIRE seeks not only to scrap the college’s unconstitutional policy and end its practice of censoring students based on viewpoint, but to hold college officials personally accountable for violating students’ clearly established free speech rights.
“Government officials who brazenly censor students are in violation of the Constitution, and FIRE aims to hold them accountable,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “This lawsuit should send a message to administrators around the country — FIRE is watching.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.