A student’s right to free speech is subject to federal rules and limitations

Like contest giveaways, prescription drugs and weight loss testimonials, the First Amendment right to free speech could end with an asterisk.

Opinion by Jack Kelly, Staff Writer

A lone bystander walks through the free speech area on the Valley College campus. The sign posted designates the allocated space for students to practice their First Amendment right. (Photo by Austin Gonzalez-Angel/The Valley Star)

The First Amendment has a multiplicity of underlying details. The U.S. federal courts have spent decades detangling the messy knot of First Amendment exceptions, including students’ right to freedom of speech. These rights only apply to public students. Private schools follow contract law, so their students’ rights are entirely subject to the institution.

Unfortunately, Valley College does not provide their students’ rights to free speech anywhere on their website or in the student handbook. Before the spring term is fully underway, students should know their free speech rights at Valley College.

In the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, three students were suspended after protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Because the protest did not impinge on others’ educational rights, the U.S. Supreme Court decided public schools could not prohibit speech or expression, provided it did not substantially interfere with schoolwork.

The year prior, a lower court determined, in Esteban v. Central Missouri State College, that public colleges and universities have the authority to create rules and regulations to discipline for disruptive speech and conduct on campus.

In essence, public schools must allow students to express free speech, but they also have to protect other students’ right to education. A student can wear a “Free Britney” shirt to class, but will likely face consequences for shouting it through a bullhorn.

The Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) balances these federal rulings and many others in its Standards of Conduct — which is buried on its website. The school district expects students to play their game yet hides the rules, putting students in a bind.

LACCD itself has not always perfectly executed their rules. In 2017, a student sued Pierce College for unfairly regulating his rights by providing a tiny Free Speech Area — a designated location on campus where anyone may exercise their First Amendment rights. As part of the settlement, all LACCD institutions expanded their Free Speech Areas, including Valley.

There are caveats to free speech, and not every action is protected. Disrupting a video conference with offensive or graphic material — or “Zoombombing” — violates the district’s code of conduct and could result in disciplinary measures.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, LACCD and Valley have failed to notify students how their rights apply in the online classroom. Students can still express oppositional views in online discussion forums, but instructors may delete students’ posts if the conversation goes off-topic, as determined by McBrearty v. Kappeler in 2018. The judge cited Tinker v. Des Moines in his decision because the student’s posts significantly derailed the professor’s assignment.

The defendant in McBrearty was Dr. Carole Garrison, a professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University. Her deposition succinctly summed up the delicate balance between a student’s right to free speech and the limitations in public education.

“I don’t remove posts that are objectionable,” she said. “I remove posts that disrupt my class.”

Students who believe their freedom of speech has been violated at Valley can contact the office of the ombudsperson.

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