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Federal judge blocks California community college’s political flyer policy

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in favor of a conservative youth group.

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge in California Friday ruled Clovis Community College administrators cannot enforce the school's flyer policy while a suit filed by students and members of a conservative youth organization proceeds.

Prior to the injunction, the school required students to have all flyers approved by an administrator to ensure they did not contain any "inappropriate or offensive language or themes."

The flyer policy also includes content-neutral regulations, including the number of posters students are allowed to hang and rules about where they can be posted.

The defendants argued in a brief opposing the injunction that the bulletin boards aren't public forums and, as such, the plaintiffs did not have a constitutional right to post their flyers inside the college's buildings. U.S. District Judge Jennifer Thurston, however, wrote in her 32-page opinion that "regardless of whether the bulletin boards are a public or nonpublic forum, the prohibition against viewpoint discrimination equally applies."

"The injunction’s relatively minor restriction on the College does not outweigh the significant interest accorded to the entire student body because it alleviates the potential chill of free speech currently caused by the flyer policy," Thurston wrote.

The plaintiffs allege in their complaint that the school violated the First Amendment by prohibiting the display of flyers containing anti-communist and anti-abortion sentiments on bulletin boards inside campus buildings, instead allowing them to only be displayed at the "Free Speech Kiosk," a "remote, infreqently visited location outdoors."

The plaintiffs' lead attorney Jeff Zeman, with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, told Courthouse News that some of the plaintiffs initially received approval to post flyers for a national event called "Freedom Week," organized by the conservative youth activist organization Young Americans for Freedom.

"Administrators from the school received a couple of complaints about them," Zeman said. "A public records request showed that the administrators kind of went into a frenzy trying to figure out how they could justify taking the flyers down." 

In one email exchange, defendant Patrick Stumpf, senior programs specialist at Clovis Community College, notes that school administrators approved similar political flyers from the plaintiffs' club in the past.

"They are the same ones we had approved a couple of years ago," Stumpf wrote. "They come from a national student organization, and we were on the fence about it." 

The injunction states that a restriction against all inappropriate or offensive speech isn't a "precise" way for the school to reach its goal of ensuring that bulletin board postings relate to things that interest students and that banning "offensive speech likely creates a chilling effect on student speech."

"Defendants’ basis for enforcing the flyer policy against Plaintiffs exemplifies the kind of arbitrary and discriminatory treatment that the vagueness doctrine is designed to prevent," Thurston wrote. "Accordingly, the court finds plaintiffs
demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the 'inappropriate or offensive language or themes' provision of the flyer policy is unconstitutionally vague."

The judge also wrote that a "central purpose of the university system is to foster creative inquiry, which develops through the expression of a diversity of viewpoints." 

Young Americans for Freedom often fights for on-campus First Amendment rights. It has pushed for conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to speak on college campuses and been involved in similar cases in which school administrators barred the group from distributing information and flyers. 

"Today is a great one for the students of Clovis Community College, and it's a win for our students that keep running into this problem with the administration over there. We're hopeful that the preliminary injunction will lead to a new day for supreme free speech and that these administrators will understand what they've done. It isn't doing their students any favors," Zeman said. 

An attorney for the Clovis Community College administrators did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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