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

October 10, 2013

FRESNO, Calif., Oct. 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 the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“Last month, Robert Van Tuinen caught on camera administrators who were so unfamiliar with the basic principles of free speech that they prevented him from passing out the Constitution to his fellow students on Constitution Day,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Even in the face of national shock and outrage, the college has failed to reform its absurd ‘free speech zone.’ Now it will have to defend that policy in federal court.”

MJC made national news when on September 17 (the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s signing) it prevented Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution in a grassy area by the student center. As captured in a video taken by Van Tuinen, a campus police officer informed him that he could not pass out any materials without first registering with the student development office. After unsuccessfully attempting to convince the officer that this would violate his right to free speech, Van Tuinen went into the student center at the officer’s request.

After further speaking with the officer, Van Tuinen then spoke with MJC clerical staff member Christine Serrano, who told him that he could only pass out literature inside the “free speech area,” which she informed him was “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.” Asking for an application and a copy of his student ID, Serrano told Van Tuinen that she had “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.” When Van Tuinen continued to protest, Serrano told him to make an appointment to meet with Vice President of Student Services Brenda Thames so that she could further explain to him “what the time, place, and manner is.”

In response to public outrage (including more than 150,000 views of the video of the college’s censorship on YouTube), MJC President Jill Stearns issued a statement about the incident claiming that “students may distribute printed material on campus in areas generally available to students and the community as long as they do not disrupt the orderly operation of the college.” However, this statement is in direct conflict with the college’s actual procedures—procedures that are seen being enforced in the video and that Stearns only promised to “evaluate.”

The complaint’s multiple counts charge the community college district with violating Van Tuinen’s free speech rights under the First Amendment, both as the rules were applied to him and as written on their face. It also charges the district with violating the right to free speech guaranteed in the California Constitution and with failing adequately to train its employees to respect students’ right to free speech. Van Tuinen is requesting an injunction prohibiting the college from enforcing its speech code as well as monetary damages to be determined by the court.

“Constitutional law can get pretty complicated at times. This is not one of those times,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “As FIRE has said from the beginning, every person at Modesto Junior College responsible for enforcing this policy should have known better. The fact that Modesto’s policy was not immediately abandoned when its shameful results were exposed on video is more evidence that too many college administrators fear freedom of speech—and demonstrates how out of touch they are with an American public that respects the First Amendment.”

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.

CONTACT:
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org

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