ILLINOIS — An Illinois community college student is suing his college, claiming its bulletin board posting policy violates the First Amendment.
Dominic Celletti’s lawsuit, filed last month, accuses the school of infringing on his freedom of speech by not allowing him to place posters on certain bulletin boards on the college’s campus.
The lawsuit stems from a September 2011 incident where Rock Valley College administers removed the posters Celletti put on event boards around campus — boards the college said only registered student organizations and clubs could use. Celletti’s poster, which was not sponsored by a student group, featured the “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake symbol and encouraged students to read and discuss the Constitution.
Celletti contacted Student Life administrators before putting the posters up, but was told he could only place posters on two boards in the Student Center because he was not affiliated with an organization. Celletti said that limited his poster’s exposure. Bulletin boards are available throughout the campus for club-sponsored fliers.
After his posters were removed, Celletti said he tried unsuccessfully to appeal to the Board of Trustees.
The lawsuit asks for an injunction to change the college’s policy on bulletin board use and asks for an apology from trustees, as well as Jack Becherer, the school’s president, and Quiana Preston, the school’s Student Life manager. Celletti also seeks $1 in damages from each.
“I tried working with these people, but they’re irrational,” Celletti said. “They’re not pro-rights. Why would they fight someone for $3 and pay a hot shot attorney from Chicago to fight me for $3?”
Rock Valley College administrators declined to comment.
Celletti is representing himself, with help from The Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va. The Rutherford Institute is a nonprofit organization that provides assistance on civil liberty cases.
One of Celletti’s main claims is that the college separates students into two different classes, one of which has less First Amendment rights than the other.
In a letter submitted to the court with the lawsuit, Rock Valley College told the Rutherford Institute that the bulletin boards were being treated as limited forums in a consistent manner with the rulings of Wisconsin v. Southworth and Goulart v. Meadows.
Southworth holds that colleges can use money from student fees to fund groups on campus as long as funding is dispensed neutrally, while Goulart holds that colleges can create different classes between speakers “to preserve the purpose of the forum.”
Will Creeley, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s legal and public advocacy director, said that this case would most likely come down to whether the bulletin boards are a public or limited forum.
The college will need to prove that it has followed a reasonable time, place and manner in limiting access to the boards. Creeley said that, to be reasonable, the non-club affiliated bulletin boards should provide ample visibility and availability for students to reach the student body.
“If these aren’t ample, I think it may be hard for the school to justify,” Creeley said. “If the school is able to convince the court this is a limited public forum and serves the interest of students to the student body, then that may sway the court in the other way.”
Creeley said that this case shares some common themes with an August ruling involving free speech zones at the University of Cincinnati. A judge permanently struck down the school’s policy restricting protests and pamphleting to a “Free Speech Area” that consisted of about 10,000 square feet.
“In this case, if the open community boards are out of the way or don’t provide students with sufficient access to reach their fellow classmates, it could be a determent of consideration for the court,” Creeley said.
By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.