Contra Costa Times editorial: Modesto Junior College right to admit its mistake and remove campus free-speech limits

February 26, 2014

Contra Costa Times editorial at Bay Area News Group

Sometimes, the student can be the teacher.

That’s a lesson driven home to officials at Modesto Junior College on Monday as they agreed to pay $50,000 to MJC student and Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen to settle a lawsuit that alleged the college had violated his free-speech rights.

Van Tuinen’s suit was filed last fall after campus officials tried to prevent him from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution to other students in a public area of the campus — on Constitution Day, no less. They argued that doing so was against their campus policies.

The case became a cause célèbre because the confrontation with MJC officials — first with a campus police officer and then with other officials in the campus administrative offices — was filmed and placed on the Internet, drawing widespread media attention.

The video received hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube and the college received hundreds of phone calls and thousands of emails from across the nation regarding the incident. Some messages included hate speech or death threats, officials said.

As part of the settlement, the college has revised its policies to allow free speech in open areas across campus.

That is the educational part of this — at least, we hope it is — for the college officials; a sort of civics lesson taught by the student, if you will. You see, those free-speech and assembly rights are an essential element contained right there in the republic’s foundational document — the U.S. Constitution, the very document that Van Tuinen was handing out.

We understand that sometimes large organizations — especially colleges and universities — can get so bogged down by their own procedures and bureaucracy that they fail to see any bigger picture whatsoever. Really, we do.

And, after viewing the video in this case, we are willing to give the college officials the benefit of the doubt. We invite you to review it and make your own judgment at contracostatimes.com/editorial.

But, be that as it may, we fervently hope this case helps educate officials at other public colleges and universities and leads them to reassess and, if necessary, revise their campus policies. Especially considering the money used to settle such lawsuits ultimately comes out of our pockets.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that assisted in the lawsuit, said that “because 59 percent of colleges nationwide maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict student speech, there’s much more work to be done.”

For his part, Van Tuinen said, “I encourage students at other schools with restrictive free-speech policies to stand up for their rights.”

We couldn’t agree with him more.

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