Free Speech Chilled at Santa Rosa Junior College: Administration Threatens Those Who Use Its Initials in Private E-mail Addresses and Domain Names

July 20, 2009

SANTA ROSA, Calif., July 20, 2009Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) has failed to lift an unconstitutional ban on “unofficial” use of the initials “SRJC” in private e-mail addresses and website domain names, chilling the expression of students and faculty. After a faculty member came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help, FIRE asked SRJC to lift its overbroad ban and to clarify the First Amendment rights of SRJC community members. SRJC, however, has told FIRE it intends to continue with its unconstitutional efforts to ban unofficial use of the college’s name.

“Santa Rosa Junior College has demonstrated a profound and mystifying ignorance of the First Amendment,” said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. “SRJC has completely misunderstood the difference between speech on the college’s behalf and purely private speech.”

On May 5, Vice President of Academic Affairs/Assistant Superintendent Mary Kay Rudolph e-mailed faculty members and other SRJC community members a notice claiming that any “use of ‘Santa Rosa Junior College’ or any abbreviation of the college name” is a violation of California Education Code 72000(b)(4). The code prohibits, among other activities, speech that implies the college’s official endorsement or affiliation. However, Rudolph stated in the e-mail that any use of “SRJC” was illegal, that violators would be commanded to “immediately cease using Santa Rosa Junior College or SRJC in their domain name or e-mail addresses,” and that “failure to comply could result in legal action.”

In a May 8 article on the ban in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, SRJC President Robert Agrella noted that SRJC has been threatening so-called violators throughout his 19 years as president. Threatening legal action against protected speech or telling people that it is illegal is unconstitutional.

FIRE wrote to President Agrella on July 1, pointing out that SRJC’s ban was unconstitutionally overbroad and a misinterpretation of the California Education Code, which only may prohibit unauthorized speech made in the name of the college, or expression that reasonably may be confused with such speech. Pointing out the absurdity of trying to enforce SRJC’s mistaken reading of the Code, FIRE noted that the ban “appears to be enforced broadly and without any investigation beyond the mere use of the letters ‘SRJC.'”

President Agrella’s July 16 response to FIRE failed to grasp the unconstitutionality of SRJC’s ban. Agrella’s short reply stated that “there is no ban on the part of the college,” ignoring the fact that dozens of community members had already been commanded to comply or else fear legal action and that Agrella had told the Press Democrat that SRJC would continue its efforts to stop the use of the SRJC name in private e-mail addresses. Agrella added that “it is not our intent to pursue individual cases through legal means,” despite his college’s explicit threat that failure to comply with the ban “could result in legal action.”

“SRJC community members have no reason to feel safe engaging in speech that SRJC has branded as illegal,” said Adam Kissel, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “SRJC has even declared purely political speech-for instance, a domain name like ‘SRJC-chilled-my-speech.com’-off-limits. SRJC must tell its students what the California Education Code actually does and does not ban so that protected speech will no longer be unlawfully chilled.”

“The only choice for SRJC is to immediately revoke this unconstitutional ban,” Shibley said. “SRJC’s contempt for the First Amendment is embarrassing. Every day this ban continues is a chilly day for free speech in Santa Rosa.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws.

CONTACT:

Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Robert Agrella, Superintendent/President, Santa Rosa Junior College: 707-527-4431; ragrella@santarosa.edu
Jack Scott, Chancellor, California Community Colleges System: 916-322-4005; jscott@cccco.edu

Schools: Santa Rosa Junior College Cases: Santa Rosa Junior College: Overbroad Ban on “Unofficial” Use of College’s Initials