There have been dozens of free-speech battles in recent years between university students and officials.
Some universities have set aside tiny portions of their campuses as “free speech zones,” demanding students apply to use them under certain conditions.
Now, the Department of Justice is siding with the students in a case brought by student Kevin Shaw against Pierce College and Los Angeles Community College District policies.
Shaw alleges the California college’s speech restrictions create an “unconstitutional prior restraint on speech” in the college’s “Free Speech Area.”
Marieke Tukthill Beck-Coon of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education explained the core dispute:
“Under the First Amendment, there is a heavy presumption against the validity of prior restraints,” the Justice Department brief explains. “The First Amendment prohibits ‘regulations that confer unbridled discretion on a permitting or licensing official.'”
A hearing is scheduled in November on the college’s demand that the case be dismissed. But the DOJ argues that while colleges are not required to open their entire campuses for free expression, rules “must not foreclose the speakers’ ability to reach their intended audience.”
“Mr. Shaw is a student at Pierce College and is seeking to engage in speech in outdoor areas and sidewalks – not classrooms or other spaces that are more appropriately characterized as non-public fora,” the Justice Department brief states. “These outdoor areas and sidewalks almost certainly constitute designated public fora as to Mr. Shaw. … Mr. Shaw has sufficiently pleaded a claim that the college’s limitations on speech outside the Free Speech Zone violate the First Amendment.”
Shaw said he’s “humbled to have the support of the Department of Justice.”
“Their statement affirms what I’ve believed all along – that the First Amendment is essential to American progress, and nowhere more so than on a college campus,” he said.
Nearly a year ago, Shaw tried to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution – in Spanish – to recruit members for his student group, Young Americans for Liberty.
He was on a sidewalk that runs through campus. But officials ordered him to stop the distribution of the Constitution, saying he could do it on only 616 square feet of the 426-acre campus, about .003 percent of the total.
“FIRE is grateful for the Department of Justice’s decision to file a statement of interest in our lawsuit,” said Beck-Coon. “As the department rightly recognizes, these policies severely restrict the expressive rights of all students on each of the nine district campuses. We cannot allow the First Amendment rights that Kevin Shaw and his fellow students possess to be taken away by administrative fiat.”
The lawsuit is against the largest community college district in the nation.