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Illinois Student Settles Lawsuit After Having Free Speech Rights Violated

A CMN exclusive report on a federal free speech case.

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Earlier this year, Ivette Salazar was detained and questioned by campus police on the Joliet Junior College campus in Illinois. Her offense? Handing out political flyers to students that read “Shut Down Capitalism.”

CMN reported the story when Salazar filed a lawsuit against JJC on January 11 with the help of college campus civil rights group The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Salazar felt that JJC not only threatened her own freedom of speech, but the freedom of all 38,000 students on campus.

FIRE broke the news that the case had been settled as of Wednesday, and on top of the $30,000 settlement payment, JJC has changed its freedom of speech policies, and has committed to training its faculty and employees for these changes. FIRE litigation director Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, who has been with the group for three years, spoke with CMN about her experience with this case as one of the attorneys directly representing Salazar.

“Shortly after we filed the lawsuit, we started settlement negotiations with the college. We also began helping them with new policies, to replace the ones we challenged in the lawsuit as unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment,” explains Beck-Coon.

Beck-Coon is referring to JJC’s previous use of a “Free Speech Area,” which is when colleges only allow freedom of speech in a small, enclosed area on campus. FIRE helped JJC develop new free speech policy modeled after the ‘Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,’ more commonly known as the “Chicago Statement.” The report describes a college campus that allows people to express their opinions without obstructing the freedoms of others, and encourages discussion and debate in a mutually respectful manner.

“This all happened very fast, because [Joliet Junior College] moved quickly to work with us, and put policies in place that would ensure First Amendment rights. We certainly commend them for moving so quickly here,” Beck-Coon reported to CMN. “I believe this case has been our fastest, or at least tied with our fastest, for settling in about four months.”

Ivette Salazar outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of FIRE/Chris Maltby.

JJC has complied with all of the settlement agreements they made with FIRE, but has also continued to stand their ground regarding the handling of the incident with Salazar. Their official statement reads:

“The college and its attorneys engaged in a discussion with Ms. Salazar’s attorneys, in particular attorneys at FIRE, regarding how to revise the college’s policies and procedures in a way that best represents the college’s commitment to free speech and expression. As a result, the college presented the updated policy on Free Speech and Expression to the Board of Trustees, which approved the policy at its April 11, 2018 meeting and JJC President Dr. Judy Mitchell followed by issuing updated procedures that implement the policy. The college has a longstanding commitment to free speech and maintains that its former policies and practices were consistent with the First Amendment. The college also believes the police officers who spoke with Ms. Salazar and answered her questions did not infringe upon her rights.”

Beck-Coon stated that “Free Speech Area” policies, which are commonly found at junior colleges, community colleges, and other commuter campuses, put First Amendment rights at risk. She explained that opposing council in similar free speech cases have argued that four-year colleges, which are typically house more students on campus, should be treated differently in regards to free speech on campus. She also noted that this argument has been rejected by courts in the past. “Quite frankly, I find it rather insulting to community college students that they should have a less robust marketplace of ideas than a four year college. This is certainly not the case under the law, and is a bad argument.”

Salazar’s case has a larger take-away for colleges across the country. Beck-Coon shared with CMN that she hopes other schools realize the large cost of having policies that are vulnerable to First Amendment abuse. “If other schools see how high this cost is, hopefully they’ll do their homework ahead of time to ensure that their policies are not prone to being unconstitutional.”

 

Are you looking for digital journalism training and experience? Are you a journalism major who wants to take your career to the next level? CMN’s Digital Journalism course gives you real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to journalism influencers and mentors, and a great place to display your work. You can get academic credit too. Check out the Digital Journalism Course here.

Carla is a recent graduate of Touro College in New York City, where she developed a keen ability to joke her way out of anything. She has previously worked for the Mayor's Office of New York, as well as ABC7 Eyewitness News. She is currently the Senior Editor at CMN, and can be reached at carla@collegemedianetwork.com.

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