Unsigned: Our entire campus, our whole nation is free speech area

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Cartoon by Adrian Martinez/Staff

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

— George Orwell

After a pitched, four-year battle on the Southwestern College campus to throw off a previous administration’s strangulating “Free Speech Area,” some folks on campus have inexplicably resumed referring to the little patch of concrete west of the cafeteria by the same name.

Seriously.

When warriors fight and bleed to win freedoms, nothing infuriates them more than having someone else casually give them back. Warriors feel insulted. And why not? They are being insulted. The message is, nothing you did then matters to us now.

During the turbulent years of the Chopra regime, “Free Speech Area” was used to describe the covered patio just west of the cafeteria. It was also the way administration segregated students from society and took away their rights. To protest, speak out or register students to vote, we were sent to the “Free Speech Area.” If we wandered away, they would come down on us hard.

This is why anyone who believes in students’ rights cannot accept the continued use of this ridiculous, offensive term by some members of the ASO and college administration.

Throughout 2009 and 2010 a firestorm of controversy raged across the campus of SWC. Then, as now, classes were being cut and teaching positions reduced. Then, however, those cuts were unnecessary. There was no statewide budget crisis. There were financial shenanigans, malfeasance and abuse in the offices of Chopra and several vice presidents. The Sun, numerous professors and a few other news organizations began to uncover evidence of the administration’s chicanery.

It took SWC students to turn smoke into fire. The flashpoint was an October 2009 student protest that left the “Free Speech Area” to march peacefully to Chopra’s office. Blocked by the campus police, the students drifted away and the protest march came to an end after 15 uneventful minutes.

The administration responded as if the Watts Riots had just burned down the community. Chopra and disgraced former VP Nick Alioto hit back by suspending four popular professors and accusing them of instigating a riot. (One of them was not even at the event.) The campus erupted and The Sun covered the events without blinking. Chopra and other corrupt administrators responded by threatening student journalists and their advisor with arrests, expulsion and freezing the funds used to print The Sun. SWC’s journalism professor and a female editor were physically accosted.

When Chopra tried to shut down The Sun a national media firestorm hit SWC. Free-speech organizations, the ACLU and elected officials entered the fray. Former Congressman Bob Filner appeared at a free-speech rally on the steps of Mayan Hall to declare his support for the students and faculty. He came to speak to the staff of The Sun. In a blatant act of intimidation, members of Chopra’s staff videotaped the gatherings and the faces of everyone there.

The rest of the school fought back. One year after the protest, voters swept out the pro-Chopra board majority. Reformers Norma Hernandez, Tim Nader and Nick Aguilar drove out Chopra, Alioto and a dozen other complicit administrators and directors, including the campus chief of police. Some of these same individuals were later indicted in what San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called “the worst case of corruption in the history of San Diego County.”

SWC has regained its accreditation and much of its reputation. Transparency and honesty have been restored. There are new policies to protect free speech and student journalism.

These gains came at great cost, hard work and enormous courage by some. The “Free Speech Area” – ridiculed in the national and local press – had become nothing more than a nice place for a bit of lunch and conversation.

Until recently.

Call it the dining patio or cafeteria patio or lunch area or Jaguar Glade, but don’t even think of calling it the “Free Speech Area.” It is not the only place we are allowed to speak or protest. Look around. Wherever we sit – that’s the free speech area. Our Constitution guarantees that. We can speak our minds, protest or preach. We cannot break the law on campus any more than we can anywhere else, but speaking up is not breaking the law.

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