Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day

Category: Free Speech
Schools: Modesto Junior College

On September 17, 2013, three Modesto Junior College (MJC) students distributed copies of the U.S. Constitution in front of the student center, in observance of Constitution Day. Roughly 10 minutes after they began, the students were approached by a campus police officer who informed them that students were prohibited from distributing materials without prior permission. When MJC student Robert Van Tuinen protested that such a restriction violated his right to free speech, the officer ignored his claims and directed him to the Student Development Office. There, Van Tuinen was told by MJC clerical staffer Christine Serrano that the school’s “time, place, and manner” policies required students to register events five days in advance and that all events must be held inside a small “free speech area.” Because the area was in use that day, Van Tuinen was not only told he would have to register his event, but that he might have to wait days—or even weeks—to hold it. FIRE wrote to MJC President Jill Stearns on September 19, 2013, pointing out that MJC’s actions were blatantly unconstitutional and calling on the school to immediately rescind its policies. When MJC did not do so, FIRE worked with Van Tuinen and the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine to coordinate a lawsuit that was filed in federal court on October 10, 2013. The lawsuit was settled six months later after MJC revised its policies to allow free expression in the open areas of campus and paid Van Tuinen $50,000 for legal expenses and to compensate him for the violation of his First Amendment rights.

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  • Constitution Day 2014: What a Difference a Year Makes

    September 18, 2014

    September 17, 2013—last year’s Constitution Day—turned out to be a dark moment in the history of free speech on America’s campuses. That was the day Robert Van Tuinen was stopped from handing out Constitutions on the campus of Modesto Junior College (MJC) in California. He had neglected to sign up to use the school’s tiny “free speech area,” the only place that a student was allowed to hand out literature. On the same day, an administrator at Citrus College (also in California) told student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle that he could be removed from campus for seeking another student’s signature on a […]

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  • FIRE’s Joe Cohn Speaking at Modesto Junior College Tomorrow for Constitution Day

    September 16, 2014

    Students, faculty, and FIRE supporters in the Modesto, California, area are invited to hear FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn speak at Modesto Junior College, home of one of FIRE’s most noteworthy cases, tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. in Founders Hall 212. Joe will be speaking about student rights on campus in honor of Constitution Day.

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  • Azhar Majeed’s Simple Message to College Administrators: End Censorship, or Else

    September 3, 2014

    My colleague Azhar Majeed, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, published an op-ed in The Huffington Post yesterday with an important back-to-school message for college administrators: Eliminate speech codes, or get ready to head to court.

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  • Modesto Junior College’s Lawyer: Colleges, Dump Your Speech Codes

    August 22, 2014

    Every advocate dreams of winning over an opponent, but it rarely happens. It’s just possible, though, that FIRE might have done so. David Urban of the law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore has written a thorough and insightful post on his firm’s blog advising colleges and universities to review their speech-related policies to insulate themselves from the threat of litigation—like FIRE’s new Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

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  • Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Makes Media Splash

    July 2, 2014

    Yesterday, FIRE launched our new Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, a national effort to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes through targeted First Amendment lawsuits. Within minutes of the announcement, major media outlets were spreading the word, and over the past 24 hours, the nation’s top newspapers have reported on this big step in the fight for free speech on campus. Here is some of yesterday’s and today’s news coverage of Stand Up For Speech and the four lawsuits FIRE brought yesterday with the help of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine:

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  • Go Behind the Scenes of the Struggle for Free Speech at Modesto J.C. (VIDEO)

    June 25, 2014

    Today, FIRE has released a new video chronicling the struggle for free speech at Modesto Junior College (MJC) in California, where student Robert Van Tuinen was famously prevented from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution, on Constitution Day, no less.

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  • Thomas Jefferson Center Announces 2014 ‘Muzzle’ Awards

    April 10, 2014

    Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is on Sunday, and that means it’s time for the “Jefferson Muzzle” awards, granted by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression! Torch readers won’t be surprised to see a few FIRE cases on this year’s list of “winners.”

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  • Speech Code of the Month: Colorado Mesa University

    April 7, 2014

    FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for April 2014: Colorado Mesa University. Colorado Mesa’s policy on “Free Speech” limits students’ expressive activities to just one “concrete patio” on the university’s 86-acre campus. While the university has the right to enact reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, courts have held time and again that onerous restrictions like this one are not reasonable.

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  • Speech Code at Modesto Junior College Fixed. Who’s Next?

    March 17, 2014

    Six months ago today, Modesto Junior College officials stopped student Robert Van Tuinen from distributing copies of the Constitution on campus, prompting him to file suit for violation of his First Amendment rights. Last Friday, Van Tuinen’s lawyers filed a stipulation for dismissal of his lawsuit in federal court, the final step in implementing the settlement that resulted in a complete overhaul of Modesto Junior College’s (MJC’s) speech policies and expectations as well as a $50,000 payment.

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  • Victory: Modesto Junior College Settles Student’s First Amendment Lawsuit

    February 25, 2014

    Yesterday evening, California’s Modesto Junior College (MJC) agreed to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed last October by student Robert Van Tuinen, whom the college prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. The videotaped incident drew national media attention.

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  • 2013 in Review: Threats from Washington, Victories in the States

    December 30, 2013

    As 2013 comes to a close, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) looks back on a year that was headlined by dire threats to free speech and student rights on campus.

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  • Support FIRE’s Fight Against Free Speech Zones

    December 24, 2013

    The free speech gazebo. 0.1%. A “little cement area.” 10-day advance registration. As far too many students sadly know, the vocabulary of campus free speech zones provides a ready example of the absurdity of campus censorship. This year, administrators at Modesto Junior College proved just how far that absurdity extends when they prohibited student Robert Van Tuinen from distributing copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day simply because he hadn’t met the requirements of the school’s free speech zone policy. Robert’s experience isn’t all that unique. Rather than celebrating free expression, too many of our colleges and universities confine it to small areas, restrict it […]

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  • California College Suspends Speech Restrictions Amidst Settlement Talks

    December 18, 2013

    FRESNO, Calif., Dec. 18, 2013—Modesto Junior College (MJC) has agreed to suspend enforcement of its “free speech zone” as it negotiates an end to a federal lawsuit filed by a student prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution on campus on Constitution Day. A joint stipulation filed in federal district court yesterday by MJC and attorneys for student Robert Van Tuinen 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 […]

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  • Lawsuit! Student Ordered to Stop Handing Out Constitutions on Constitution Day Files Suit

    October 10, 2013

    A student who was ordered by college administrators to stop handing out copies of the Constitution on campus—on Constitution Day—filed suit today in federal court. Modesto Junior College (MJC) student and Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen is suing the Yosemite Community College District and MJC administrators for violating his First Amendment rights. Van Tuinen is represented by the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine and is assisted by FIRE.

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  • Modesto Doubles Down on Unconstitutional Policies, Claims School Protects Free Speech by Restricting It

    September 23, 2013

    Over the weekend, Modesto Junior College (MJC) President Jill Stearns published a statement in The Modesto Bee responding to the public outcry that arose from the school’s demand that student Robert Van Tuinen stop handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution to his fellow students on Constitution Day. The incident “motivated a vast number of individuals across our country to voice their concern through email and phone calls,” according to Stearns. While some of the communications were evidently personal attacks directed toward MJC staff (which is lamentable), Stearns concedes that a great number of the calls and emails represented a […]

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  • Modesto Junior College’s Attempts at Damage Control Fail

    September 20, 2013

    When government officials say something stupid, their PR folks quickly devise a strategy to “walk back” the statement. Modesto Junior College has skipped walking and is sprinting back its unwise decision to stop a student from distributing copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. As well it should. Here’s the statement that appeared on its Facebook page within hours of FIRE’s press release exposing Modesto’s policy of requiring students to sign up in advance to use a “free speech zone” to express their views: The Yosemite Community College District’s (YCCD) colleges have free speech areas on campus for activities such as distributing materials […]

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  • California College Forbids Passing Out Constitutions… On Constitution Day

    September 19, 2013

    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 […]

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