Can Free Speech Be Furloughed?

The day after a peaceful protest over budget conditions at a California community college, four professors -- including a union president -- are placed on leave and banned from campus.
October 26, 2009

On Thursday, several hundred students at Southwestern College, a community college outside of San Diego, held a peaceful protest over budget cuts that are leading to the cancellation of more than 400 additional course sections next semester. On Friday, the students got a sign that someone was paying attention to the protest, but they didn't get the response they wanted: Four faculty members were immediately suspended and barred from the campus or using the campus e-mail system.

The suspended professors include the current and former presidents of the faculty union, which supported the student protest.

With California's economy in a free fall, and the budgets of public colleges and universities in similar decline, student and faculty protests have been picking up across the state, and several campuses have seen building takeovers or other examples of civil disobedience. But the Southwestern situation -- with faculty members getting kicked off campus -- is notable for the extent of administration reaction to a protest that was relatively mild compared to some others.

The letters that the four faculty members received telling them that they had been suspended immediately did not say why. But the letters referenced (by number) a section of California's penal code that bars people from "willfully disrupting the orderly operation of the campus."

Southwestern officials could not be reached to explain why they took this action. The college's spokeswoman was recently laid off and she has not been replaced. The college's president, Raj Chopra, is reportedly on vacation and his e-mail reply says that he will be off campus until November 13. Chopra's executive assistant gave local reporters a statement that said that the reason for the suspensions could not be made public, and that "the college shares our students' concerns about reductions in state funding for the college. The college respects, values and is committed to freedom of expression.”

Philip Lopez, an English professor who is president of the faculty union, said that there is no other possible explanation for the suspensions except the rally. "Nothing else happened the day before," he said.

Lopez said that the union -- an affiliate of the National Education Association -- has consulted with union lawyers and is demanding a hearing, which the college must schedule within seven days. He said that the rally received widespread support because the students and faculty members were questioning how the college is responding to the budget crisis. While state cuts are severe, he said, the college has insisted on keeping a reserve fund that is twice as large as necessary, when cutting its size might save more courses. He noted that the cuts planned for next semester will be about one fourth of courses in many departments.

Regardless of one's views of the college's strategy, he said it was wrong for professors to be kicked off campus without any explanation and apparently because they criticized the administration. In his case, he said, he was forced to miss a meeting with administrators Friday at which he was to have represented faculty interests, because he was ordered off campus.

"Clearly the administration doesn't think there is such a thing as the First Amendment," he said.

Andrew Rempt, a writing instructor who was suspended, said that he was most upset about being pulled from his classes and not being able to help his students. "I feel terrible not being able to teach my courses," he said. "We’re are at a real key point in the semester, a real make-or-break point for many of my students, and I can’t be there to help them. This is very difficult for me to deal with because that’s the whole point to what we do."

Ron Norton Reel, president of the Community College Association, an affiliate of the California Teachers Association (the NEA's California unit), issued a statement Sunday denouncing the suspensions.

"In misguided actions by administrators who have no respect for the rights of faculty, reports that at least four instructors at Southwestern College have been suspended with pay after taking part in a campus rally against severe cuts are extremely disturbing," he said. "When a college president and governing board support cutting 25 percent of all course offerings and exclude faculty from important decisions, the right response is to challenge these cuts. State education cuts are threatening the future of this college and many others. Retaliating against faculty for standing up for their school and students is a reckless course of action."


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