A lawsuit against a California college over its decision to enforce a “free speech zone” and prohibit a student from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution appears to be on track for a settlement that would revise the school’s policy.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a stipulation has been reached in a lawsuit brought against Modesto Junior College.
As WND reported in October, student Robert Van Tuinen filed the complaint after campus police halted his effort to hand out copies of the Constitution in a grassy area by the student center Sept. 17, the anniversary of the Constitution’s signing.
A campus police officer told Van Tuinen he could not pass out any materials without first registering with the student development office.
He was one of several college students banned from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.
FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said the college administrators, who were caught on camera intervening, “were so unfamiliar with the basic principles of free speech that they prevented him from passing out the Constitution to his fellow students on Constitution Day.”
Now, Modesto Junior College has agreed to suspend enforcement of its “free speech zone” during negotiations to end the federal lawsuit.
FIRE reports a joint stipulation filed in federal district court by the school and attorneys for the student states that the parties have agreed on several significant revisions to the college’s “free speech policies and procedures,” pending final approval by the Yosemite Community College District, expected this spring.
“FIRE welcomes this development as a sign that Modesto Junior College is making important progress towards bringing its policies in line with the First Amendment,” said Lukianoff. “Today, Robert Van Tuinen and over 17,000 fellow students and faculty members may exercise their First Amendment rights without being confined to a free speech zone or required to register in advance.”
In September, according to FIRE, Van Tuinen spoke with MJC administrator Christine Serrano, who told him that he could only pass out literature inside a “free speech zone.” The zone, he was told, was “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.”
Eventually, college President Jill Stearns said “students may distribute printed material on campus in areas generally available to students and the community as long as they do not disrupt the orderly operation of the college.”
The case raises multiple counts of violation of free speech rights under the First Amendment, both as the rules were applied to him and as written, FIRE said. It also charges the district with violating the right to free speech guaranteed in the California Constitution and with failing adequately to train its employees to respect students’ rights.
“Constitutional law can get pretty complicated at times. This is not one of those times,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “As FIRE has said from the beginning, every person at Modesto Junior College responsible for enforcing this policy should have known better.”
According to a report from Young Americans for Liberty, a group with more than 380 chapters and 125,000 students promoting liberty, at least two other colleges did the same thing.
At the College of Central Florida in Ocala, an officer told students they would have to go through his office to get permission “any time you want to approach our students.”
“We can’t hand out Constitutions?” an incredulous student asked.
Citing the need for “proper protocol,” the officer said students could submit a request and school officials would “check our calendar, make sure it doesn’t conflict with what we’re doing, then we’ll approve it or deny it.”
Likewise, at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin officials made certain students understood.
“Would you like me to go and get security to explain it in more detail?” one official demanded of the students.
The students were ushered off of what the school considered its sidewalk to another “public” sidewalk.
“You need to request the time and place that you want to have that activity,” the school official said. “You can’t just show up.”
Alyssa Farah, director of communications for YAL, asserted the colleges “are in clear violation of the First Amendment.”
“Simply put, the mere concept of a ‘free speech zone’ is an affront to liberty and should have no place on college campuses,” she said.
See the incident in Modesto: