Lawsuit alleges civil rights violation

Vinny Sinapi-Riddle alongside California gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly during a fundraiser for Donelly last year. (Facebook photo)

By Cameron Wisdom | Editor in Chief

A legal firm representing a current Citrus College student filed a complaint in July in the United States District Court alleging that the college’s administration infringed on their client’s constitutional rights.

In a 42-page document filed with the Western Division Court of the Central District of California, The Davis Wright Tremaine law firm serving as counsel to student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle described how their client was allegedly threatened and intimidated by a college administrator while he was petitioning outside the college’s designated “free speech zone” on Sept. 17, 2013.

According to the document, Sinapi-Riddle was gathering signatures for a petition urging the Citrus College student government to condemn spying by the National Security Agency.

When Sinapi-Riddle left the free speech area to discuss his petition with another student, a campus official, referred in the document as defendant Doe 1, allegedly confronted him near the school’s Educational Development Center.

The document further states that the official threatened Sinapi-Riddle by stating that he had the authority to eject the student from campus for violating the school’s free speech zone policy.

Citrus College’s Administrative Procedure 3900 titled “Speech: Time, Place and Manner”defines the campus as a “non-public forum” and restricts the school’s free speech zone to a location in the central quadrangle area.

The plaintiff’s filing states that this free speech zone comprises merely 1.37 percent of a total campus area of 104 acres.

The policy also states that Citrus Community College District reserves the right to revoke the free speech area and apply a non-public forum designation as necessary “to prevent the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the college.”

Sinapi-Riddle’s complaint is part of a larger cooperative litigious campaign coordinated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE’s “Stand Up for Free Speech Litigation Project” is a national effort to eliminate educational speech codes it deems unconstitutional through targeted First Amendment lawsuits.

According to the FIRE’s website, lawsuits will be filed against public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes in each federal circuit court. “After each victory by ruling or settlement, FIRE will target another school in the same circuit – sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued,” it reads.

FIRE coordinated the Citrus complaint in the launch of an unprecedented campaign against public institutions that also includes Ohio State, Iowa State and Chicago State universities.
In 2003, FIRE was involved in a similar case against Citrus filed by former student Christopher Stevens.

Stevens’ complaint argued that the school’s speech regulation then in force was unconstitutional and violated his First Amendment rights.

Regulation 5138 restricted expressive activities to three small areas of campus and required students to sign in with Campus Security before they were permitted to express their views.

Campus Security personnel would also have to approve any materials to be distributed.

The Citrus Community College Board of Trustees rescinded the regulation on June 5, 2003, the day before a scheduled show cause hearing in court.

On August 12, 2003, Citrus settled the case by agreeing to revise its policies and pay Stevens’ attorney fees.

The Citrus College administration adopted a new policy on Dec. 16, 2003 that allowed public demonstrations anywhere on campus as long as they did not exceed a threshold of 60 decibels, which is the volume of a normal conversation between people standing three feet apart.

The District approved Board Policy 5550 in  January 2010, which designated that the college was a non-public forum “except for designated areas generally available to students and the community,” which were deemed limited public forums.

Citrus revised the policy in early 2013, allowing for free expression in only one location on campus. Efforts have been made to contact the plaintiff, legal firm, and FIRE for comment on the complaint.  As of this time no responses have been received.

According to the complaint, Sinapi-Riddle is seeking a judgment stating the district’s speech code as unconstitutional, along with a permanent injunction restraining enforcement of Citrus’ speech codes.

The complaint is also requesting monetary damages to compensate Sinapi-Riddle for what the document states as interference by the defendants’ application of illegal speech codes to restrict the plaintiff’s right to free expression, as well as attorney fees and any other relief to which the plaintiff may be entitled.

Robert Sammis, J.D., director of human resources at Citrus College is the chief negotiator for the Citrus Community College District Board of Trustees.

According to Sammis, the allegations in Sinapi-Riddle’s complaint concerning the size of the free speech zone as a percentage of the entire campus do not accurately reflect the actual space on campus used by students.