California college quashes conservative speech
Students pursue a civil rights case against the Fresno-area school
As attorneys argued the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson abortion case before the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1, students 2,800 miles away spoke up for unborn lives.
At least, they tried. In a Clovis Community College office in California, cousins Alejandro and Daniel Flores waited in vain for nine hours for approval of hallway posters with a bold message: Abortion ends more lives than cancer.
The next day, Dean of Student Services Gurdeep Hébert denied indoor space for the posters. Instead, she banished them to an outdoor kiosk behind the main class buildings. The kiosk, said Daniel Flores, is “probably smaller than an outhouse, and it’s just in the middle of nowhere. It’s the last place a student group would pick to get their message out.”
The Flores cousins and fellow Young Americans for Freedom member Juliette Colunga sought help from national YAF leaders. After months of preparation, the three students sued Clovis Community College administrators Thursday for violating their First and 14th Amendment rights.
Colunga agreed the posters were provocative but said that was the point: “I think that dialogue from opposing sides is what makes us better, what makes society better.”
It wasn’t the group’s first brush with censorship at Clovis, a Fresno-area campus that awards 2,500 degrees and certificates annually. In November, the students gained approval for Freedom Week posters in conjunction with YAF’s celebration of U.S. veterans and the fall of the Berlin Wall. One poster bemoaned totalitarian regimes—from China and the Soviet Union to Cambodia and Afghanistan—responsible for nearly 100 million 20th-century deaths.
Following complaints, college President Lori Bennett ordered the YAF posters removed. “If you need a reason, you can let them know that [Vice President of Student Services] Marco [De La Garza] and I agreed they aren’t club announcements,” Bennett wrote in an email.
The college’s policy on posters and flyers, updated in September 2018, neither mentioned club requirements nor defined inappropriate content. Ultimately, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression helped the students unearth emails and evidence of administrative intent.
“What Clovis administrators can’t do is pick and choose what flyers are allowed on those bulletin boards,” said FIRE Litigation Fellow Jeff Zeman. “The Supreme Court has long made clear that viewpoint discrimination—censoring speech because of the particular perspective it takes—is an egregious violation of the First Amendment.”
The complaint filed in U.S District Court contends the Clovis policy violates the First Amendment by exercising prior restraint on student expression and by banning speech it deems offensive. The suit also claims violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause because an ordinary person could not distinguish between what the college considers permissible or prohibited conduct.
In their official capacities, administrators Bennett, Hébert, and De La Garza should change school policy to eliminate censorship, Zeman said, while monetary damages should apply in their personal capacities for violating student rights.
Since the incidents, Bennett announced plans to retire as president. Clovis spokeswoman Stephanie Babb said the college would not comment on the case. Beyond building YAF membership, the students hoped their posters would spark a dialogue about ideas.
“I’m a Catholic person, and then my conservative values follow,” said Alejandro Flores, whose parents helped found Fresno’s first Spanish-language Catholic radio station. YAF appealed to business major Daniel Flores with its “conservative thinking that whatever somebody aspires to be, they can do with hard work.”
Colunga, the incoming president of YAF, aligns with historic Protestantism. “I think about how dedicated the Protestant reformers were to the Word of God, and I also want to be that dedicated,” she said. “So I’m hoping that with this platform that we’ve gained, I’ll be able to use that to point to God and his sovereignty.”
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