College rescinds vague flyer restrictions, but lawsuit proceeds as plaintiffs seek to force school to create free speech policy
In what is being billed as a win for free speech, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled in favor of a group of Clovis Community College conservative students suing the school over what they contend is an unconstitutional speech policy that bans inappropriate or offensive content.
The students, members of the Young American’s for Freedom group, had sued the school in August 2022 after campus leaders removed their posters criticizing socialism and highlighting its death toll.
The appeals court this week sided with a district judge’s ruling from October 2022 that administrators cannot prevent students from posting flyers with themes some find objectionable.
“The district court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that [the students] were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the ‘inappropriate or offens[ive] language or themes’ provision was facially overbroad,” the appeals court ruling states.
Leading up to Thursday’s ruling, Clovis Community College rescinded its vague flyer policy.
The Fresno Bee reported the college’s attorney said the Ninth Circuit’s ruling addressed an issue “resolved several months ago when the school changed the procedure on how it deals with flyers and posters on campus.”
However the Ninth Circuit chided college officials for trying to make the lawsuit “moot” by rescinding its flyer policy, citing precedent that “a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.”
The appeals court added Clovis Community College has not proven it will not simply reinstate the policy once the lawsuit is fully resolved.
Clovis YAF Chair Juliette Colunga stated in response to the ruling she hopes it “will not only spur the Clovis community into finally deciding to explicitly protect the constitutional rights of its students to speak freely, but also send a message to other institutions that are censoring student speech.”
The students are represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which stated it plans to continue the litigation.
“Clovis tried again to justify its censorship, but the court saw through its flawed arguments,” said FIRE attorney Daniel Ortner in a news release.
As The College Fix previously reported, the controversy began in November 2021, when Clovis’s Young Americans for Freedom requested to put up flyers for the national organization’s “Freedom Week,” and was approved by campus officials. The flyers showed images and text critical of socialist and authoritarian regimes.
But after the flyers prompted complaints, they were taken down.
“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,” according to FIRE.
The student plaintiffs have said they seek to force the school to implement a policy that explicitly protects free speech and the right of students to share opinions freely on campus.