MODESTO, Calif., September 19, 2013—In a stunning illustration of the attitude taken towards free speech by too many colleges across the United States, Modesto Junior College in California told a student that he could not pass out copies of the United States Constitution outside the student center on September 17, 2013—Constitution Day. Captured on video, college police and administrators demanded that Robert Van Tuinen stop passing out Constitution pamphlets and told him that he would only be allowed to pass them out in the college’s tiny free speech zone, and only after scheduling it several days or weeks ahead of time. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has written to Modesto, demanding that the college rescind this policy immediately.
“The video of Modesto Junior College police and administrators stubbornly denying a public college student’s right to freely pass out pamphlets to fellow students—copies of the Constitution, no less!—should send a chill down the spine of every American,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “Worse, FIRE’s research shows that Modesto Junior College is hardly alone in its fear of free speech. In fact, one in six of America’s 400 largest and most prestigious colleges have ‘free speech zones’ limiting where speech can take place. This video brings to life the deeply depressing reality of the climate for free speech on campus.”
Van Tuinen began his efforts to pass out the U.S. Constitution to fellow students outside the student center. He reports that after less than 10 minutes, a campus police officer arrived and informed him that any time anything was being passed out on campus it had to be registered with the Student Development office. After unsuccessfully attempting to convince the officer that this would impair his freedom of speech, Van Tuinen went into the student center at the officer’s request.
Once inside, Van Tuinen (who had expected the college to object to the distribution) explains to the officer that he is trying to start a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty on campus and is passing out Constitutions to spark student interest. The officer tells him that “as a student on campus passing out anything whatsoever, you have to have permission through the Student Development office.” An increasingly nervous Van Tuinen’s accurate protestations that this violates his First Amendment rights are repeatedly ignored, and he eventually reports to the Student Development office.
Upon arriving at that office, Van Tuinen talks with clerical staffer Christine Serrano, who tells him that because of “a time, place, and manner,” he can only pass out literature inside the “free speech area,” which she informs him is “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.” She asks him to fill out an application and asks to photocopy his student ID. Hauling out a binder, Serrano says that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.” Van Tuinen protests that he wants to pass out the Constitution on Constitution Day, at which point Serrano dismissively tells him “you really don’t need to keep going on.”
Ultimately, Serrano, after a phone call to an unnamed person in which she says that Van Tuinen “just wants to question the authority of why can’t he hand out constitutional-type of papers,” tells him he will have to make an appointment with Vice President of Student Services Brenda Thames so that she can further explain to him “what the time, place, and manner is.” You can see the whole exchange in the video below.
“Your right to engage in free speech in this country is not contingent on the contents of some bureaucrat’s binder, and the fact that two people on campus are currently speaking their minds doesn’t mean you can’t,” said FIRE’s Shibley. “Virtually everything that Modesto Junior College could do wrong, it did do wrong. It sent police to enforce an unconstitutional rule, said that students could not freely distribute literature, placed a waiting period on free speech, produced an artificial scarcity of room for free speech with a tiny ‘free speech area,’ and limited the number of speakers on campus to two at a time. This was outrageous from start to finish. Every single person at Modesto responsible for enforcing this policy should have known better.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org