A federal civil rights lawsuit filed this week alleges that Clovis Community College leaders violated the First Amendment rights of a conservative student club and its members last fall by ordering the removal of posted flyers that had previously been approved.
The Young Americans for Freedom chapter at the Clovis college, and three of its student leaders, filed the lawsuit Thursday with the U.S. District Court in Fresno over what its attorneys describe as the unconstitutional removal of flyers promoting Freedom Week in November 2021. The complaint also alleges that administrators violated the students’ freedom of expression in December 2021 by denying permission to post anti-abortion flyers that they had hoped to post on interior bulletin boards on the campus.
The suit names college President Lori Bennett, vice president of student services Marco De La Garza, dean of student services Gurdeep Sihota Hebért, and senior student services program specialist Patrick Stumpf as defendants.
“Clovis tried to put up barriers against our ideas because administrators didn’t like them,” student Alejandro Flores, a co-founder of the Clovis YAF chapter, said in a statement released by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which is representing the students in the case. “That’s the opposite of what a college should do. Our college should encourage us to discuss and sharpen our ideas, not shut down the conversation.”
In addition to the student chapter and Flores, the group’s past president, students Daniel Flores of Fresno and incoming chapter president Juliette Colunga of Clovis are listed as plaintiffs suing the college administrators.
Clovis Community College is one of four colleges under the umbrella of the State Center Community College District, along with Fresno City College, Reedley College and Madera Community College. Both officials with the Clovis campus and the college district declined to address questions from The Fresno Bee about the lawsuit. “The district does not comment on pending litigation,” Stephanie Babb, a Clovis college spokesperson, told The Bee by email.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Over the past 231 years since the First Amendment and the other nine amendments known as the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791, courts have broadened the meaning of the law to cover not just Congress, but any level of government at the state or local level, to protect the First Amendment freedoms, including public colleges and universities.
The Clovis club is a chapter of the national Young Americans for Freedom organization. It is one of about 30 student organizations on the Clovis college campus.
The lawsuit states that the students had received approval from Stumpf in November 2021 to post several different anti-communist flyers on indoor bulletin boards inside two academic buildings on the Clovis campus at Willow and International avenues.
Within days of the students posting the material, the complaint alleges that Stumpf, De La Garza and Bennett received an email from another college staffer reporting that the flyers “made ‘several people … very uncomfortable.’” That message then set off a flurry of emails among administrators about removing the flyers from the bulletin boards.
On Nov. 12, the suit alleges, “President Bennett ordered Vice President De La Garza and Dean Hebért to remove the flyers” from the bulletin boards. ‘If you need a reason, you can let them know that Marco (De La Garza) and I agreed they aren’t club announcements,” Bennett reportedly wrote in an email.
In the college’s club handbook, an advertising policy last updated in September 2018 states that “all posters not bearing the (college) logo or … not from a College Department of Division … must be approved and stamped by the Clovis Community College Student Center staff. Failure to do so will result in unapproved/unstamped flyers being removed and thrown away.”
The policy adds that “posters with inappropriate or offensive language or themes are not permitted and will not be approved.”
In December, the college denied the club’s request to post a series of anti-abortion flyers on interior bulletin boards in the academic buildings, instead relegating them to an outdoor free-speech kiosk on the Clovis campus.
“Other students and clubs regularly post flyers with political and social commentary or themes on the interior bulletin boards of the Academic Centers,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants do not require those students or groups to take their flyers down and only post then to the Free Speech Kiosk.”
The students and their attorneys are asking for a jury trial in the case, arguing that the club and the students are entitled to monetary damages for the costs in producing the flyers, as well as punitive damages against the college administrators “for their knowing and willful violation of (the students’) rights under the U.S. Constitution,” in addition to attorney fees and costs.
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction barring the college from applying a club flyer policy that “is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it bans speech that the government deems offensive.”