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Activist arrested

Officers detain woman for allegedly violating campus free speech policy.

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Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 3:40 pm | Updated: 3:01 pm, Fri Apr 22, 2011.

A vegan activist passing out leaflets on campus said her rights were violated when she was searched by campus security officers and arrested Thursday in front of the Library.    

Nikki Benoit, 35, of Pasadena, an outreach coordinator for the non-profit organization Vegan Outreach, was detained by Campus Safety then cited for trespassing by the Costa Mesa  police while she was on campus to advocate against animal cruelty in the food industry. 

“Campus safety manhandled me, grabbed me, turned me around, threw hand cuffs on and pushed me around,” Benoit said of the incident.

Benoit, who said she has visited more than 80 campuses to pass out leaflets, added that this is the first time she has been arrested and escorted off a campus. 

The activist said that when she has been approached at other campuses she has been allowed to stay and hand out information once she informs police of what she called her constitutional rights. Several attorneys have advised her that handing out leaflets on campuses is legal, she added.

“The state of California lets me do this,” she said.

But Orange Coast College officials say anyone promoting causes must confine themselves to the Free Speech Zone.

Benoit said Campus Safety was called when she refused to stop leafleting in front of the library after an employee approached her and asked her to stop.

According to Chief of Campus Safety John Farmer, Benoit refused to move to the designated Free Speech Zone on campus when asked, adding that there is a no leaflet policy on campus.

“If this person is outside the confines of the free speech area and refuses to leave, then campus safety will approach,” said Kate Mueller, dean of students services. “Colleges by federal law can define time, place and manner (of free speech on campus).”

According to civil rights and freedom of speech attorney Michael Collins of Newport Beach, a free speech zone on campus is unconstitutional.

“A free speech zone is limiting your first amendment rights and would not appear to be consistent with the first amendment rights of the constitution,” Collins said.

He added that the college is restricting speech by having a zone where people can promote causes.

“Your right to freedom of speech does not have geographical restrictions. You either have it or you don’t,” Collins said. “I don’t agree that this free speech zone is consistent with what the constitution says.”

According to Mueller and Farmer, anything disruptive to the normal flow of student activity is not approved and anyone in violation of the code can be detained by campus safety.

Benoit said she wasn’t being disruptive when handing out the leaflets and was trying to spread awareness on what goes on in the food industry and animal cruelty.

“I have never been accused of being aggressive. There is no point, violence and aggression is not a way to encourage compassion,” Benoit said.

She said she is considering legal action against the college.

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