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

By 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 genuine concern for MJC’s responsibility as a public institution to respect its students’ free speech rights, as guaranteed to them in the U.S. and California constitutions.

Stearns’ statement does little to allay the concerns of those who contacted the school and those across the country who are outraged by MJC’s actions. In fact, Stearns seems to double down on the school’s restrictive free speech zone policy: 

Unfortunately those contacting the college have no interest in the fact that we carve out designated free speech areas on campus such that any disruption to ordinary operations of the college are minimized. 

It’s a sad irony that a university president would claim that her school’s policies protect free speech by restricting it. Students who wish to express themselves at MJC must request permission from the administration at least five days in advance, and if their request is granted, their expression must be limited to what what one administrator called a “little cement area.” Furthermore, students cannot use the free speech area for more than eight hours per semester.

One can hardly call MJC accommodating of students’ First Amendment rights, as evidenced by Van Tuinen’s run-in with the school’s restrictive policy—a policy that so far as we can tell from Stearns’ statement seems to remain in place.

That such restrictive policies might be necessary to ensure the “ordinary operations of the college” is an empty argument. According to data collected from FIRE’s Spotlight database of campus speech restrictions, roughly one in six of America’s top 409 schools maintain restrictive free speech zones. On the campuses of the remaining five-sixths of schools without free speech zone policies, one hardly finds disorder and mayhem. Unsurprisingly, students can co-exist with the free and open expression of ideas. They do not need campus bureaucrats to tell them how to do so.

Moreover, Van Tuinen’s video illustrates that free expression can occur outside of the college’s tiny free speech zone without disrupting university classes our operations. The distribution of copies of the Constitution on campus—outside of the free speech zone, no less—created no disruption whatsoever. 

MJC has a legal and moral obligation to revise its policies to comport with the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court held in Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of NY, Inc. v. Village of Stratton (2002), “It is offensive—not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society—that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.” If the school wants to craft policies governing speech on campus, they must be content-neutral and “narrowly tailored” to serve a significant governmental interest, leaving open ample alternative channels for communication—a standard MJC’s current policies fall well short of meeting.

While it is admirable that Stearns describes MJC as “a proud supporter of Constitution Day activities,” its actions say otherwise.

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