Three Clovis Community College students have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against President Lori Bennett and other administrators, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated by the removal and banning of their group’s flyers from bulletin boards inside campus buildings.
The suit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court Eastern, District of California in Fresno by attorneys for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit civil rights organization that protects free speech rights on college campuses.
Stephanie Babb, spokeswoman for Clovis Community College, said officials are aware of the suit, but the district does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit plaintiffs are students Alejandro Flores, Daniel Flores, and Juliette Colunga, and their organization, Young Americans for Freedom at Clovis Community College. Alejandro Flores is the group’s founder and is Daniel Flores’ cousin.
“Clovis tried to put up barriers against our ideas because administrators didn’t like them,” YAF-Clovis founder Alejandro Flores said in a news release from FIRE. “But that’s the opposite of what a college should do. Our college should encourage us to discuss and sharpen our ideas, not shut down the conversation.”
Initially Had Permission to Post
The suit alleges that the students received permission to put up anti-communist flyers on bulletin boards inside college buildings in November 2021. But after campus administrators received complaints that the flyers made some people “uncomfortable,” Bennett said in an email cited in the suit that she and Marco De La Garza, vice president for student services, agreed that the flyers weren’t club announcements and were subject for removal from the bulletin boards.
In addition to Bennett and De La Garza, Gurdeep Hebert, dean of student services, and Patrick Stumpf, senior program specialist, are defendants in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that Hebert later cited the same requirement that flyers be club announcements when she rejected the plantiffs’ application the next month to post pro-life flyers on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in an abortion rights case.
Instead, the students claim they were directed to put their flyers on an outdoor Free Speech Kiosk, which the suit describes as a “small box covered in rotting wood planks … at the edge of a walkway students virtually never use.”
Suit Claims Policy Is Unconstitutional
The lawsuit says that the college’s “poster/flyer instructions” policy is unconstitutional because it prohibits flyers with inappropriate or offensive language or themes. But the same policy does not specify that flyers must announce club meetings or events, as Bennett had said when justifying the removal of the Young Americans for Freedom flyer.
The suit claims that the policy operates as prior restraint against protected student speech; bans speech on the basis of subjective “offense” and fails to define or provide standards as to what constitutes inappropriate or offensive language; is vague and subject to arbitrary enforcement; and is overbroad.
The plaintiffs are demanding a jury trial and are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, unspecified punitive damages for the “willful deprivation” of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, and attorneys’ fees.