Students at Miami-Dade Community College in Florida have settled a dispute with college administration personnel who had denied them the chance to pass out literature on campus without prior approval.
A student-filed lawsuit recently was settled when the college agreed to change its previous distribution policy by dropping the pre-approval requirement.
“This will affect all the community colleges in Florida,” said Mathew Staver, the students’ lead counsel and president of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal defense organization, commenting that all community colleges in Florida have similar policies regarding prior approval for literature distribution.
Students allegedly were threatened with arrest after trying to pass out business-sized cards on campus that included the words “The call you’ll never forget” and a phone number to a local church ministry. Staver believes the students were targeted because their literature was of a religious nature.
Campus security officers approached the students and told them they could not distribute literature on college property. When a different group of students from the same church began to pass out the cards a few days later, security officers again came and told them to discontinue distribution. The students tried to leave, but were told they couldn’t go anywhere until a police officer arrived.
Marcos Garcia, one of the students distributing literature, was “literally shaken” when the security officers approached him, says Staver.
“He was on the verge of being arrested,” he said.
Students filed a lawsuit against the college in 1999, claiming the college’s distribution policy violated their First Amendment right to free speech. The college’s prior policy required the approval of the student life director before distributing any literature. An application also had to be completed and a copy of the proposed material had to be given to the student life director at least seven days before distribution. Staver says the college also allowed only one table in one location, sometimes far from where the students had classes, to be used for distribution. It wasn’t really practical on a campus as big as Miami-Dade’s, he says.
“It’s just an over-handed effort to regulate speech of students on college or university campuses,” said Staver. “These policies are obviously unconstitutional.”
Staver says the college did not want to change their policy and tried procedural motions to get the case dismissed. The case was drawn out for almost three years until the college decided to settle the day before the trial date was set to begin, May 24.
“They want to be able to regulate what students distribute through literature, and they weren’t willing to let go of that,” said Staver.
In a statement about the settlement, Roberto Fabricio, director of communications at MDCC, said, “The college was very comfortable that its literature distribution procedure was in compliance with the law, and thus the case proceeded through the courts.”
The college’s policy is now being changed to meet certain specifications given by a federal judge who approved the settlement. The new policy must allow distribution anywhere on campus, repeal the seven-day waiting period and drop the requirements for prior review by the student life director. MDCC has 60 days to write a new policy.
Fabricio says students will be able to distribute 10 copies of literature a day anywhere on campus without any type of regulation, and if they want to distribute more than that, they have to fill out a form at the Student Life Center identifying themselves or their group 24 hours before handing out material.
The college, says Staver, had many “flimsy excuses” for not wanting to change their policy on distribution – such as wanting to “regulate litter” and not wanting people to pass out material that might “offend” someone. A lot of times the distribution policies aren’t a problem, because they aren’t usually enforced, says Staver.
“What actually happens in practice is that these policies are often ignored, but [they are] enforced whenever conservative speech or religious speech is at issue,” he said.
The main concern was not the religious content of the literature, says Fabricio, but the amount of paper being distributed around campus and the littering it caused.
“My understanding of the case is that the content was totally unrelated. It was just a matter of a security guard enforcing a regulation,” he said.
The secretary for Karen Brimmer, the attorney who represented the college, told WorldNetDaily Brimmer didn’t want to comment on the settlement.
Staver says the students were “very pleased” with the outcome of the settlement. He believes the change of policy will not only have an effect in community colleges in Florida, but across the country as well.