On Tuesday night someone left a comment on one of my posts on the Southwestern College faculty suspensions that that passed on the text of SWC Governing Board President Jean Roesch’s Monday statement on the incident. Here’s that statement, quoted in full:

To: College Community

Many of you have learned that four faculty members were placed on paid administrative leave on Thursday, October 22, 2009 and three faculty members remain on paid administrative leave at this time, pending the outcome of the investigation. Please understand that no formal charges or allegations have been made against any College faculty member or employee at this time.

The student rally held between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. on October 22, 2009, is not the focus of the investigation. The College is investigating safety and security issues that arose after the approved organized student rally. The College respects, values and is committed to lawful free expression and the student rally provided an opportunity for our students to voice their concerns and to underscore the challenges that all community college students, and community colleges, are experiencing.

The College is committed to maintaining a safe environment for our students and staff, which is the focus of the investigation.

I’m guessing, since the comment was placed in response to a blogpost critical of the SWC administration, and since the commenter adopted the moniker “SWC Professor,” that I and my readers are intended to take this statement as a rebuttal to our criticisms. If so, it’s a deeply disappointing one.

President Roesch seems to believe that if you give students and faculty authorization to hold a one-hour rally at a specific on-campus location, you’ve dispensed with your obligations to protect “lawful free expression” in the college community. But that’s not how the First Amendment works, and it’s not how a college should work.

The First Amendment doesn’t just protect free speech. It also explicitly protects the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. A public college administrator is in a very literal sense an agent of the government, and SWC is a public college.

Students and faculty at a public college have a moral right to hold a peaceful rally on campus. They have a moral right to peacefully march across campus to the president’s office. There should be no difference in the eyes of the law, and there should be no difference in the eyes of any campus administrator, between a “approved organized student rally” and a spontaneous, extemporaneous one.

The SWC administration has so far offered no evidence that any incident that took place on Thursday afternoon placed that day’s march outside the bounds of fundamental First Amendment protections.