Officials at Orange Coast College have been asked to explain why they barred a student group from displaying a pro-Second Amendment banner to recruit members.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the school on behalf of members of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter.
The banner featured the words “Don’t Tread On Me” and “2nd Amendment since 1789.”
“But because two silhouettes of rifles appeared on the flag, administrators approached the students during the recruitment fair and demanded it be taken down,” the organization said.
In its letter to OCC Interim President Kevin Ballinger, FIRE said the First Amendment, the California Constitution and the California Education Code protect students’ speech rights.
And the group said the rule cited by the college “does not authorize the regulation of displays of images.”
Finally, the display of images of firearms is protected political expression.
FIRE warned that officials could be held individually liable for a violation of constitutional rights.
“According to the two university officials, the flag violated school policy AP 3530, which prohibits ‘firearms, knives, explosives or other dangerous objects’ and any ‘facsimile of a firearm,'” FIRE said.
The school claimed the two-dimensional image of a banner was the equivalent of a “facsimile.”
“On its face, the policy’s broadest reach is limited to ‘dangerous objects.’ For a ‘facsimile’ of a dangerous object to fall within the scope of the policy, that facsimile would have to amount to a ‘dangerous object,'” FIRE said. “It is difficult to conceive of any image that could reasonably be described as dangerous, nor is there any reasonable argument that a depiction of a gun is itself dangerous.”
The policy appears to show an intent to regulate weapons, not expression, FIRE said.
“Both of the penal statutes referenced by the policy pertain to possession of weapons, not expressive displays.”
FIRE further reminded school officials that expression does not lose its protection under the First Amendment simply on the basis that some viewers find it offensive or even violent.
“The First Amendment protects displays of flags and banners, including those whose display offends others, whether that offense arises from the content of the flag or the manner of its exhibition. For example, nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down as an ‘unwarranted limitation on the right of free speech’ a California statute barring display of any ‘red flag’ or ‘banner’ as a ‘symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government.'”
Said FIRE: “Students’ First Amendment rights at public institutions like Orange Coast College are clear. If, as alleged, administrators wrongly cited a policy meant to regulate the possession of weapons to censor students’ depiction of them, then the college has violated the First Amendment.”