Argued and Submitted February 14, 2001 — Seattle, Washington
In this case, we must decide whether a professor at a state university who removes handbills publicizing an appearance of a former colleague at a conference to be held on the university campus is entitled to qualified immunity. Ironically, the subject of the conference was "Intellectual Freedom." We have no doubt that the removal of the handbills constituted a First Amendment violation, and that at the time of the alleged conduct there was no uncertainty in the law as to this question.
Douglas Giebel was a professor at Montana State University-Northern until 1995, when, after an acrimonious process similar to that which frequently occurs in institutions of higher education at the time of the initial hiring of a faculty member or an award of tenure, his contract was not renewed. Stephen Sylvester was the chairman of Giebel's department, and one of his adversaries in the contract renewal dispute.
In the Spring of 1996, about a year after the termination of Giebel's employment, the university sponsored a conference on "Intellectual Freedom" and arranged for the participation of about twenty-five speakers. Giebel was scheduled to be one. When the conference was publicized, Giebel posted his own handbills on campus bulletin boards announcing his upcoming speech.
Almost two years after his handbills were removed, Giebel filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in federal court against Sylvester claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights and seeking a declaratory judgment and damages. Sylvester filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he was entitled to qualified immunity because Giebel had failed to allege a First Amendment violation, and that, even if he had, the asserted First Amendment right was not clearly established at the time of Sylvester's actions. The district court denied Sylvester's motion, and Sylvester filed an interlocutory appeal.
Sylvester appeals the district court's order denying his motion for summary judgment. The "district court's denial of a claim of qualified immunity, to the extent that it turns on an issue of law, is an appealable `final decision' ... notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). In his summary judgment motion, Sylvester argued that, assuming the facts as alleged by Giebel to be true,
III. FIRST AMENDMENT VIOLATION
In analyzing a qualified immunity defense, we must first decide whether, assuming that the facts are as alleged by the plaintiff, the defendant violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609, 119 S.Ct. 1692, 143 L.Ed.2d 818 (1999). Only if we answer that question in the affirmative do we then turn to the issue whether the constitutional right was clearly established. Id.
Sylvester argues that tearing down Giebel's handbills did not violate the First Amendment because: (1) Giebel's handbills did not seek to communicate ideas and therefore did not contain expressive content protected by the First Amendment, and (2) the university provided Giebel an opportunity to speak in another forum, namely at the conference.
1. Handbills as speech.
Sylvester argues that Giebel's handbills were not speech, claiming that they lacked "expressiveness of content," and going so far as to label them "nonverbal conduct." Because the handbills merely "announce[d] a speech," he reasons, they are not entitled to First Amendment protection.
The argument that handbills announcing a subsequent speech are not, in and of themselves, speech protected by the First Amendment is patently wrong. Such handbills are posted for the purpose of conveying information and, to the extent that they are observed before being torn down, do so. In general, words communicating
That speech is protected by the First Amendment even if it is merely informative and does not actually convey a position on a subject matter was made clear in Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 444 U.S. 620, 632, 100 S.Ct. 826, 63 L.Ed.2d 73 (1980). In Schaumburg, the Supreme Court reviewed an ordinance prohibiting certain door-to-door solicitation by a non-profit organization, and held that mere "communication of information ... [is] within the protection of the First Amendment." Id. Five years later, in Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., 473 U.S. 788, 105 S.Ct. 3439, 87 L.Ed.2d 567 (1985), the Court considered whether Schaumburg extended to informative speech in written form, as opposed to speech conducted face-to-face (in which dialogue is possible). In Cornelius, the NAACP, a non-profit organization, challenged the government's exclusion of its thirty-word description of itself from government pamphlets seeking charitable contributions. Id. at 798. The pamphlets, which were distributed to federal employees exclusively, contained descriptions of other non-profit groups. Id. By regulation, the short descriptions were not permitted to be "persuasive speech." Id. at 798-99. Nevertheless, after specifically considering the purpose of the descriptions, and determining that their authors intended them to convey information that could be of use to those who read them, the Court held that the notices were speech protected by the First Amendment.
Giebel's handbill, like the NAACP's self-description, could be viewed as a mere advisory notice not designed to persuade those who read it. Still, like the NAACP's material in Cornelius, it was designed to communicate information to the reader. It is not the role of the courts to weigh the importance of the information conveyed, and we do not do so here. Instead, we conclude that, because Giebel's handbill was designed to convey information, it constitutes a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
2. Alternative forum for Giebel's speech.
Sylvester also argues that removing Giebel's handbills did not violate the First Amendment because the university provided Giebel with another forum for his speech, namely the "Intellectual Freedom" conference. However, Giebel does not claim that Sylvester's action is unlawful on the theory that he was completely deprived of a forum for his speech. Rather, he argues that Sylvester denied him access to a forum to which he was entitled. The fact that another forum was made available to Giebel simply has no relevance to the First Amendment issue posed here:
When the government opens a forum to the public and does not "consistently enforce ... restrictions on the use of the forum," it creates a designated public forum. Hopper v. City of Pasco, 241 F.3d 1067, 1075 (9th Cir.2001). In such a forum, a state is bound by the same First Amendment limitations that apply in traditional public fora, such as streets and public parks. See Perry Educ. Ass'n v. Perry Local Educators' Ass'n, 460 U.S. 37, 46, 103 S.Ct. 948, 74 L.Ed.2d 794 (1983). Here, Giebel has put forth uncontradicted evidence that the university's bulletin boards are available for use by the public, including persons not affiliated with the university, "to communicate with students and others at the University." His evidence shows that the university has no policy or practice of regulating the content of the materials placed on university bulletin boards. Accordingly, we conclude that the university's bulletin boards are a designated public forum.
In general, the extent of the protection afforded by the First Amendment in designated public fora depends on whether the suppression of the speech is on the basis of the "viewpoint" expressed by the speech or the "content" of the speech. Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 829-30, 115 S.Ct. 2510, 132 L.Ed.2d 700 (1995). "Content discrimination" occurs when the government "choos[es] the subjects" that may be discussed, while "viewpoint discrimination" occurs when the government prohibits "speech by particular speakers," thereby suppressing a particular view about a subject. See Perry, 460 U.S. at 59, 103 S.Ct. 948 (Brennan, J., dissenting).
We conclude that Sylvester's alleged actions are most appropriately treated as viewpoint discrimination, because Sylvester sought only to silence speech by a particular speaker—Giebel—rather than speech by all non-university speakers or by all speakers promoting the conference and its participants.
IV. QUALIFIED IMMUNITY
Sylvester also argues that, even if his alleged actions constitute a First Amendment violation, he is entitled to qualified immunity. He asserts that the First Amendment right at issue was not "clearly established and stated with particularity" when, in early 1996, the handbills were removed.
"[P]recedent directly on point is not necessary to demonstrate" that a right is clearly established. Id. at 255. Rather, if "the unlawfulness [is] apparent in light of preexisting law," then the standard is met. Id. at 254. In addition, even if there is no closely analogous case law, a right can be clearly established on the basis of "common sense." DeBoer v. Pennington, 206 F.3d 857, 865 (9th Cir.2000), petition for cert. filed, (U.S. Aug. 7, 2000) (No. 00-222).
Both common sense and closely analogous case law lead us to conclude that it was clearly established long before 1996 that Giebel's handbills were a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Since the earliest days of the Republic, it has been understood that information conveyed in handbills on matters of public interest is speech within the ambit of First Amendment protection. For those without the resources to purchase advertisements in newspapers or time on television, the handbill has been an indispensable means of informing the public of upcoming public events, including discussions of important issues. The Supreme Court has consistently tried to make it clear that the First Amendment protects the rights of all persons to proclaim their views for all to hear without interference by the state. Indeed, prohibitions on the distribution of pamphlets "engendered the struggle in England which eventuated in the establishment of the doctrine of the freedom of the press embodied in our Constitution." Schneider v. State of New Jersey, 308 U.S. 147, 164, 60 S.Ct. 146, 84 L.Ed. 155 (1939). Leaflets "have been historic weapons in the defense of liberty, as the pamphlets of Thomas Paine and others in our own history abundantly attest." Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452, 58 S.Ct. 666, 82 L.Ed. 949 (1938). In short, the distribution of leaflets, one of the "historical weapons in the defense of liberty," is at the core of the activity protected by the First Amendment. Schneider, 308 U.S. at 162, 60 S.Ct. 146.
Almost thirty years ago, in a case considering the right of university students to organize a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Supreme Court expressly discussed the critical importance of the function that public notices serve. See Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 176-77, 92 S.Ct. 2338, 33 L.Ed.2d 266 (1972). The Court declared that the student organization's "ability to participate in the intellectual give and take of campus debate" was severely limited by the university's policy of prohibiting the organization from posting notices of upcoming meetings on campus bulletin boards and in the school newspaper. Id. at 181-82, 92 S.Ct. 2338. While Healy involved a more extensive denial of the exercise of First Amendment rights, the opinion unquestionably afforded university officials notice that handbills regarding upcoming events posted on university bulletin boards constitute speech protected by the First Amendment. In light of history, a solid body of Supreme Court decisions, and common sense, we reject any contention that the First Amendment violation alleged in this case was not clearly established, and conclude that Sylvester is not entitled to qualified immunity.
The district court's order denying qualified immunity for Sylvester is affirmed. We conclude that, accepting Giebel's version of the evidence and viewing it in the light most favorable to him, Sylvester violated Giebel's clearly established First Amendment right to post handbills informing the public of his upcoming speech at the "Intellectual Freedom" conference.