A court in California has delivered a major blow to the use of restrictive “free speech zones” by colleges, which often relegate unwanted viewpoints to the backwaters of their properties.
Judge Otis Wright II of the U.S. District Court in California has ruled that a complaint brought by a student against Pierce College in the Los Angeles Community College District can go to trial.
The campus-liberty group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, noted that while there have been many such cases, this one was set apart because the Department of Justice intervened, siding with the student and against the college and its “free speech zone.”
FIRE’s Marieke Tukthill Beck-Coon explained the case in a video:
The Justice Department’s brief said: “Under the First Amendment, there is a heavy presumption against the validity of prior restraints. The First Amendment prohibits ‘regulations that confer unbridled discretion on a permitting or licensing official.'”
The DOJ argued college 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 at the time he was “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.
But it also ruled that open spaces for public colleges such as L.A. Pierce are open forums, “regardless of Pierce’s regulations.”
FIRE said that means the lawsuit will move forward on the First Amendment violation claims.
“Ruling that the campus of a public university, including open spaces, are public forums renders L.A. Pierce College’s free speech zone unconstitutional,” the FIRE report said. “As stated in the order, ‘This characterization makes sense, because after all, what is a university’s purpose but to expose students to new ideas and spark dialogue?'”
Cliff Maloney Jr., president of Young Americans for Liberty, said it is “promising to hear the court upholding the First Amendment and defending Kevin’s right to free speech on campus, despite the university being blissfully unaware of their absurdly limiting policies.”
“This is exactly why YAL continues to fight the good fight for liberty,” he said.
FIRE’s Beck-Coon said court’s ruling “sends an important message to colleges nationwide that still restrict student speech to free speech zones.”
“The campus is a college student’s public square. It’s their space to be engaged citizens. The public recognizes this. So do courts across the country. Now it’s time for LACCD to follow suit,” Beck-Coon said.
Nearly a year ago, Shaw tried to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution – in Spanish – to recruit members for his Young Americans for Liberty chapter.
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.
That would be a parcel the size of a classroom hidden in two-thirds of a square mile, or 18 million square feet.
“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 nation’s largest community college district, which serves an estimated 150,000 students.