FREE SPEECH -- Three community college professors who may have been doing no more than showing solidarity with students peaceably protesting program cutbacks have not only been summarily suspended but may face criminal charges, reports KXTV in San Diego.

The protest was held Thursday on the Southwestern College campus to
dispute the college's decision to cut classes next semester. It was
peaceful, and school officials did not dispute that. They say it's what
happened after the rally that resulted in the disciplinary action of
four professors, one of whom returned to teach on Monday.

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School officials
said the professors weren't placed on leave for their actions during
the rally, which took place on a "free speech area" on campus. Instead,
they said they are looking into what happened after the rally when the
students moved over to the administrative office.School
officials said their concerns are threefold, and the actions being
investigated include violations of college policies, like "inciting
students to leave the free speech area, disregarding police direction
and directly confronting police officers."

Vice President of
Student Affairs Angelica Suarez said, "At this time charges have not
been filed with the district attorney's office, but that is an
investigation that is currently ongoing."

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The school said there are
two parallel investigations -- one with the school, and one with the
police. Depending on what they find, they said criminal charges could
be filed as early as this week.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, writes in the Huffington Post that his organization has stepped in to advocate for the teachers' rights after learning how mild their involvement was.

How small is the free speech zone, you ask? Well, it's actually a
patio outside the Student Union. No, I did not just make that up. The
whole affair is so ludicrous that
FIRE sent a letter yesterday to SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra.

The basic facts of the case are as follows. According to
eyewitnesses who have described the events both to FIRE and to the
press, a group of students and faculty assembled on October 22 in SWC's
"free speech area" to protest various actions of the college. One of
the students then said, "Let's go where they can hear us"—apparently
because it is frustrating to, you know, have one's protest event
restricted to a patio.

Some students then headed toward President
Chopra's office, where they were met by campus police officers and
prevented from even getting into the courtyard where Chopra's office is
located. Three faculty members were with the group of students for
different amounts of time during the students' conversation with the
police officers, and they left separately.
 

Later that evening, the three professors were hand-delivered
letters signed by Chopra at their off-campus homes, informing them that
they were banned from campus due to an unspecified "matter" and were
not even permitted to use campus e-mail or other resources. Just as
chillingly, according to other reports, campus police officers have
recently been attending peaceful gatherings of students and faculty,
and students involved in such meetings and protests have been summoned
to the president's office.

A new California law expressly protects high school, community college and state university employees who act to protect students' speech rights.  Education Code Section 66301 was amended by SB 1370 by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), signed into law last year, which provides:

An employee shall not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against solely for acting to protect a student engaged in conduct authorized under this section, or refusing to infringe upon conduct that is protected by this section, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, or Section 2 of Article I of the California Constitution.

If nothing else, this sorry episode should finally expose the political and legal bankruptcy of the "free speech zone" approach so widely—perhaps universally—adopted by California's colleges and universities. Such zones—in which annoying or offensive speech is tolerated—would never be upheld as permanent fixtures in the pedestrian byways of the wider community. 

While speech zones corraled outside—and often beyond earshot of—political conventions and other important policy gatherings and official speeches have become the equally deplorable norm, they are at least temporary, and media coverage typically ensures that the gist of the protest is well known. Otherwise, one needs neither a badge nor a permit to stroll the sidewalks or paper the parking lots of the community with messages his fellow citizens would rather not be bothered with.  Hyde Park, with its tradition of soapbox eccentrics tolerated as a confined sideshow, is a byproduct of English law, which has no First Amendment.

Higher education campuses, it has often been remarked, pride themselves as bastions of academic freedom and learning—refuges for the examination of ideas and that the wider community might find alien or repugnant.  And yet the situation has evolved from the Free Speech Movement of 50 years ago to something close to the precise opposite.  Alien, repugnant or insistent speech is the nettlesome intruder into the academic cocoon.  Speech codes declare the existence of a "community of learning" in which abraded feelings, insulted self-regard or confrontational challenges to cherished beliefs have no place. 

"Free speech zones" are islands in a speech-free ocean. Where they exist, academic administrators should stop lamenting the decline in support for "higher" education.  There is nothing particularly exalted or elevated in an education that has abandoned respect for the First Amendment and the dissonance and dissent it has always protected. And above all, ruling out of order the student and faculty protests that echo administrators' very own alarm at the dwindling public support of education is a reaction that could hardly be more mindless.