At colleges and universities across the country, emotions
were running high after the 2016 presidential election.
“People were polarized,” says Kai Stearns Moore,
district director of public and governmental affairs
for the North Orange County Community College
District in California. She saw plenty of examples of
this at nearby institutions.
In a classroom at Orange Coast College, a faculty member spoke out against Donald Trump. A
student filmed the speech on his phone. The video
went viral and “it blew up,” Moore says.
At Pierce College, in November 2016, a student
distributing Spanish-language copies of the U.S.
Constitution was told he’d have to obtain a permit
and move to a campus free speech zone in order to
continue his activities. The student sued the college
in early 2017, alleging his right to free speech was
violated. The lawsuit is ongoing.
A couple months prior, just before September 11, a
conservative student group at Saddleback College put
up posters showing images of terrorist attacks on
the exterior of buildings in violation of board policy.
When a faculty member began taking down the posters, the group filmed her and posted the video online.
Incidents like these are happening on two- and
four-year campuses across the country. In each
instance, the central question is, “What constitutes
freedom of speech?”
“It’s a very interesting time,” says Sharon Ormond,
a lawyer at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and
Romo. She counsels colleges when First Amendment
Like Moore, Ormond says that politics are more
polarizing of late.
Also, she points to the fact that the Foundation for
Individual Rights and Education (FIRE), which has a
mission to “defend and sustain individual rights at
America’s colleges and universities,” initiated in 2014
a litigation project to challenge policies believed to
violate rights to free speech. These challenges often
revolve around the extent to which a campus can regulate the expressive activities of its students, including
where on campus those activities can take place.
A handful of states have considered or passed
free-speech legislation, including Arizona, Illinois,
North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
The enormity and complexity of the topic led
Moore and Juan Gutierrez of Orange Coast College
to hold a one-day seminar through the National
Council on Marketing and Public Relations, an
affiliate council of the American Association of
The audience—mostly public information
officers (PIOs)—heard from college officials, communications professionals and lawyers, including
Ormond, about the dicey issue.
“It behooves us as PIOs to educate as much as
possible the interested parties at our campuses,
A look at free speech on campus
By Tabitha Whissemore