JOLIET – A 24-year-old Joliet Junior College student has filed suit against the school after she said it violated her freedom of speech by detaining and interrogating her for handing out anti-capitalist literature.
Manhattan resident Ivette Salazar filed suit Thursday in federal court against her educator – JJC, according to a news release from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
The nonprofit organization works to defend liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses, according to the release.
In late November, Salazar noticed members of a conservative student group distributing anti-socialist materials on campus and began distributing flyers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation that read “Shut Down Capitalism” to offer an alternative viewpoint, according to the release.
Salazar said she previously had tried to post literature on “Freedom of Speech” bulletin boards around campus and was told it would need to be approved before she could do so.
“I just went with it because I kind of knew they were going to tell me ... no,” Salazar said. “That day I felt like it was the thing to do.”
She was able to pass flyers out before one class and a few after the class but said she then noticed a school janitor pointing at her with a female JJC officer. The officer was holding some of her flyers.
JJC police allegedly detained her for about 40 minutes, questioned her and told her she could not distribute her flyers because “it might start something” because of the “political climate of the country.”
While in custody, Salazar asked about her right to free speech, and one officer reportedly said, “If you want to go ahead and post your flyers and burn your crosses, you have to get it approved [by the school].”
“I mean, I was scared,” Salazar said. “I didn’t know if I’d get expelled from school. I’d never been put in that kind of situation before.”
Campus police also confiscated her flyers.
“I should be able to express my political beliefs on campus without being detained,” Salazar said in a statement. “JJC didn’t just threaten my freedom of speech, but the freedom of speech of every student on that campus. If we can’t have political discussions on a college campus, then where can we have them?”
Salazar also is challenging the constitutionality of the school’s “Free Speech Area” policy in the suit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
In addition to the school, JJC President Judy Mitchell, Vice President of Student Development Yolanda Farmer and several other individuals associated with the school are listed as defendants.
The policy restricts political activity to one indoor area of campus, requires students to request use of the area five business days in advance, requires students to disclose the purpose of their speech, allows for only two people to use the area at a time and requires students to remain behind a table, according to the release.
School officials also need to approve any materials students might want to disseminate before students passing them out or posting them around campus, according to court documents.
Salazar said the policies are not widely known. She had to find out about the “Freedom of Speech” boards and area on her own.
She also alleges JJC violated her Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully detaining her.
JJC spokesperson Kelly Rohder-Tonelli said school administrators had not yet been able to review the lawsuit Thursday, but the school had been and will be in contact with Salazar regarding the incident.
“During that time and now, the college has offered meeting opportunities to her and her representatives to have further discussions,” Rohder-Tonelli said.
Salazar said administrators had reached out but a meeting time was not yet established Friday morning.
Rohder-Tonelli added the school’s policies are meant to nurture open and accessible dialogue of ideas on campus.
“These policies not only support a culture of free speech, but ensure that the college maintains a campus environment accepting of such a dialogue in the process,” Rohder-Tonelli said. “The college believes these policies appropriately balance these tenets and interests of all involved.”
FIRE officials reached out to school administrators in early December, asking that the school comply with its legal obligations as a public institution bound by the First Amendment and eventually received a response from a lawyer.
The group initially reached out to Salazar after she tweeted a photo during her detainment, Salazar said.
“It just blew up,” Salazar said.
The lawsuit is part of the Philadelphia-based organization’s Million Voices Campaign, which aims to free the voices of 1 million students by striking down unconstitutional speech codes nationwide.
“Debating the merits of economic and governmental systems is core political speech,” FIRE’s Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon said. “Campus police got it backward: The current ‘political climate’ is a reason for more speech, not censorship. If tense political times justified restricting political speech, the First Amendment would be pointless.”
FIRE Legal Network member and former president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association Wayne Giampietro of Poltrock & Giampietro in Chicago assisted in filing suit. Giampietro serves as co-counsel with FIRE in the case.
“A public college should be teaching its students the existence and value of the freedoms protected by our federal and state constitutions, not violating those freedoms,” Giampietro said. “The First Amendment protects our most cherished right to speak freely on political matters. It is deplorable that public school employees, paid with our tax money, would detain, interrogate, and seize political materials from a student who is attempting to exercise that right.”