by Russell Westerholm at University Herald
Everyone can use a reminder of the principles that made America the exceptional nation. That’s why Congress established Sept. 17 as Constitution Day, marking the anniversary of the adoption of that remarkable document. Robert Van Tuinen, a student at Modesto Junior College in California’s Central Valley, learned the hard way that eternal vigilance is the price of protecting the founding document. He was arrested on Constitution Day for handing out pamphlets with the text of the Constitution.
The Constitution was not singled out; it was the practice of the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution that attracted the ire of the school. A uniformed campus police officer ordered Mr. Van Tuinen away from a public area where he distributed the pamphlets. “As a student on campus, passing out anything whatsoever,” the officer told him, “you have to have permission through the student development office.” Under the school’s rules, Mr. Van Tuinen and others must make a reservation to use the “free-speech area.” There’s a waiting period to speak up. The school apparently does not see the irony in the requirement.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says Modesto Junior College is one of dozens of schools clamping down on campus expression. “Virtually everything that Modesto Junior College could do wrong, it did do wrong,” says Robert Shibley, a vice president of the foundation. “This was outrageous from start to finish. Every single person at Modesto responsible for enforcing this policy should have known better.”
Modesto is only 90 miles from Berkeley and the University of California, where the free-speech movement, so-called, was born in the 1960s, which in turn contributed to the great social upheaval of that decade. Radical students at Berkeley protested the Vietnam War and often focused their fire on Ronald Reagan, then governor of California. The hippies of Sproul Square are older now, and have traded their tie-dyed T-shirts for tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. Many of them have cast aside their “Question Authority” buttons (and attitudes) to do the things that they once condemned.
Free-speech zones have no place in a free country. The entire country is a free-speech zone. There must be no restriction of access to a college campus, or to the orderly promotion of any views, political, religious or otherwise. Free-speech “zones” convert the rest of the campus into a “Constitution free” zone. “Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public,” wrote William Blackstone, the great English law scholar. To impose a licensing scheme on speech “is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controversial points in learning, religion and government.”
The power to judge what’s right and wrong can be intoxicating, and sometimes school administrators can forget who they are, and grow “too big for their breeches,” in the old schoolyard taunt. There is an easy solution to the drama at Modesto Junior College. The administrators there should get an assignment from an English professor, the kind who suffers no fools at all, to write 300 words on the blackboard about what the Constitution is all about. It might open some eyes.