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

By 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.

Much of the case’s narrative is probably familiar to FIRE supporters by now. Van Tuinen sued MJC, eventually receiving a $50,000 settlement, and MJC agreed to revise its policies to eliminate the requirement that students obtain permission for their expressive activities from MJC and the limitation of such activities to a tiny “free speech area.”

But there’s much to the case that you probably don’t know. You probably haven’t heard about Leslie Beggs, now an adjunct professor at MJC, who criticized MJC’s censorship in a column in The Modesto Bee, prompting “higher ups” at MJC to try to stop the English Department from hiring her to substitute for a professor who had unexpectedly retired due to illness. In the end, she taught one course, not three as originally offered. (Beggs writes far more about the MJC case in the latest entry on her blog as well.) And you probably haven’t heard about William Holly, a longtime philosophy professor who curiously got the worst performance review of his long career at MJC after he wrote a long, critical examination of MJC’s free speech practices and emailed it to the entire MJC faculty and administration. Both Beggs and Holly attest to the chilling effect their treatment has had, although MJC has significantly improved its policies to better protect free speech.

And you might not remember that even after censoring Van Tuinen, having its act caught on camera and watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers, being sued, and ultimately agreeing to revise its policies and pay a $50,000 settlement, MJC apparently couldn’t see what it had done wrong. In March 2014, Joan E. Smith, Chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District, published a Modesto Bee column making the ostentatious claim that “Modesto Junior College did not prevent Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution.”

For that matter, even after having its unconstitutional policies and practices thrust into the spotlight, MJC took more than two months after being sued to agree to suspend its free speech zone policies—on whose constitutionality there really was no question. (Contrast that timeline with that of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, which has moved much more promptly in response to a similar lawsuit brought by students, with FIRE’s assistance.)

Still, for Van Tuinen, the struggle has been worth it. As he says of the state of free speech at MJC at the video’s conclusion, “It’s a thousand times better now.” But as our latest video shows, it wasn’t an easy road to get there.

Schools: Modesto Junior College