Peralta Colleges propose 'free speech zones' to limit free speech, students, faculty say

Photo: The Desert Lamp

A proposal to designate specific areas on campuses of the Peralta Colleges as "free speech zones" has drew outrage from faculty, staff and students at a May 12 town hall.

The draft "Administrative Procedures (AP) 5550-Speech: Time, Place, and Manner" will regulate public "speech activities" on campus. Individuals and organizations from the community that "wish to table, display materials, petition, engage in public address, distribute literature and/or post flyers" would have to comply with the proposed regulations.

Speakers would be limited to the 150 foot x 150 foot main quad at Laney College, as well as the outdoor quads at COA and Merritt College, and the Student Lounge on the fifth floor at Berkeley City College.

Requests for non-students to come on campus would have to be made three business days in advance and will be granted on first-come first basis, according to the procedure.

Groups would also have to reserve a space three business days in advance. Fliers could no longer be posted onto windows and walls, and would be restricted to bulletin boards. All fliers would also require an English translation.

The proposal is the result of ongoing district litigation with an anti-abortion group that was removed from COA in 2008, according to Peralta General Counsel Thuy Nguyen, who said she expected a decision on the case soon.

"If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, it is that there's an ability to coexist," Nguyen said.

The tone of the town hall quickly changed when an attorney representing the faculty union called the proposal "an abomination."

"Martin Luther King would have been in violation of this (proposal) the moment he spoke," said Bob Bezemek, legal counsel for the Peralta Federation of Teachers, who has threatened to sue if the procedure is implemented.

Some Peralta employees said the language was ambiguous, while others said it provided needed guidelines to ensure the safety of students and employees.

Anti-abortion group at Laney College
Anti-abortion group at Laney College-1
An anti-abortion group caused quite a stir on campus when they arrived at Laney College March 8. The group showcased banners with graphic images of dismembered fetuses.

In March, Laney College students and staff complained when an anti-abortion group came on campus with huge banners with images of aborted fetuses. The protesters also harassed people walking through the quad by taking their photos and posting them on Facebook and Twitter.

Laney College librarian Margaret Traylor, who wrote a letter of protest following the incident, said the proposal created needed guidelines to balance free speech and the safety of the campus community.

"Even if the Tea Party came on campus, I wouldn't object," Traylor said. "Everything in this world needs a guideline." Referring to the incident on March 8, she said, "Some people were threatened and intimidated" by the protesters.

The forum was held at the same time as an ASLC discussion meeting, and just four students were in attendance.

"Seems like we're attacking our students for something they didn't have anything to do with," said Laney student Stewart Jollymore. "The issue is involving people not apart of the college coming on campus."

Nguyen responded that on one campus, students are required to reserve space at least two weeks in advance.

"Ultimately, the board and district have to take a position on protesters," Nguyen said. "They have gave me direction to honor free speech to the fullest extent."

Requests for permission to speak on campus could be denied if the request conflicts with another reservation, previously scheduled student activities, or during finals week. Even though speakers cannot be banned from campus based on their message, administrators can forbid speech activities deemed disruptive or in "defiance of the authority of district officials."

Many students, like Alessandro Tinonga note that the proposal is being floated at the same time students are protesting trustees and administrators. Since the fall of 2009 semester, there have been numerous protests at the district's board meetings, as well as the March 4 Day of Action.

According to Nguyen, Peralta's attorneys in the COA lawsuit drafted the proposed language three months ago, prior to the March 4 protests, the anti-abortion protest at Laney College and the April 13 protest that shutdown a trustees meeting.

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