Watershed Moment for Rock Valley College Free Speech Lawsuit

By Michael Kleen

July 24, 2013
Rock River Times

In the fall of 2012, Dominic Celletti, a criminal justice student at Rock Valley College (RVC), filed suit in Federal court against RVC President Jack Becherer, Student Life Manager Quiana Preston, and the Board of Trustees. Celletti alleged that RVC infringed on his freedom of speech with burdensome and arbitrary policy restrictions concerning campus bulletin boards. In April of this year, Judge Philip Reinhard granted a motion to dismiss the case and gave Celletti the opportunity to file an amended complaint, which he did on July 15th.

The suit stemmed from an incident in the fall of 2011. On September 2, 2011, Celletti approached staff at the Student Life Center about his ability to post flyers urging students to get involved in civil rights issues around campus. The flyer was a simple design featuring a call for students to read the U.S. Constitution and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, with Dominic’s phone number.

When Celletti inquired about posting the flyers, he was told that he was not allowed to post on campus bulletin boards because he was not a member of a campus club. As a non-affiliated student, he could be given access to one “free” and one “event” board in the Student Center Building.

The RVC posting policies, Mr. Celletti’s complaint alleged, effectively create two classes of people at the college when it comes to access to a free speech platform: those who are members of an officially recognized club and those who are not. The free speech rights of non-affiliated students are significantly restricted, while campus clubs have a wide venue to promote their views. Additionally, the Student Life Manager has too much arbitrary control over what is posted and what is not.

The Rutherford Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and human rights, wrote a letter to Rock Valley College in support of Celletti’s complaint.

The defendants, however, argued that bulletin boards established for use by recognized student organizations (RSOs) are a limited (or nonpublic) forum for student speech set up for the purpose of advertising events and activities sponsored by those organizations. These recognized student organizations can be given access to channels of communication that individuals and other organizations are denied.

In his opinion, Judge Reinhard argued that the restriction of the plaintiff (Mr. Celletti) to use of certain generally available bulletin boards while allowing RSOs to use a larger number of designated bulletin boards does not violate his free speech rights. Furthermore, he claimed the policy does not discriminate based on viewpoint. “Plaintiff does not allege defendants were trying to suppress his views only that they were not giving him the same opportunity to express his views as RSO received,” he wrote.

“The non-RSO is not suppressed by simply not given RSO-level support,” he concluded.

In his amended complaint, Celletti clarified his argument and provided more case law to back it up. Fundamentally, he maintains that Rock Valley College should be a “marketplace of ideas” where platforms for expression (like bulletin boards) are available equally for all students. “The reality of this case is that because of the violation of Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, Mr. Celletti was not able to effectively reach others and by doing so has destroyed the main element of a college’s purpose, to allow the free exchange of ideas to prosper,” he wrote.

If Judge Reinhard’s decision stands and the case is dismissed, Mr. Celletti would have to appeal to a higher court for it to go forward. He may also have to pay relief to the defendants “as the court deems appropriate.” Celletti, if he wins his case, is asking for $3 and for RVC bulletin boards to be opened for use by all students.

This dispute could be resolved with the enactment of simple, common sense posting policies like those in use by many colleges and universities. There is no reason why students at RVC shouldn’t be allowed to post on bulletin boards around campus, while some boards are set aside for clubs. The college could even remove all flyers on certain designated days each month to prevent overcrowding.

While I think it would be interesting to see this case go before a higher court, Rock Valley College has spent too much time and energy defending its unreasonably restrictive posting policies. In the end, the worst that can happen for the college is that it is forced to free up its bulletin boards for use by all of its students. In the interest of academic freedom, I hope RVC reconsiders its policy and avoids prolonging an unnecessary legal battle.

Icon_smallMichael Kleen is an author, publisher, and local historian. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and M.A. in History from Eastern Illinois University and M.S. in Education from Western Illinois University. He lives in Rockford, Illinois where he owns and operates Black Oak Media, Inc.

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