Pittsburgh-Area College Fails to Remedy Violations of Concealed Carry Advocate’s Free Speech

By on June 2, 2009

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Prior review and prior restraint are unconstitutional. The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and its solicitor, Mike Adams, however, are actually defending policies that require both. Not only this, but they are defending their policies in a ham-handed way, arguing that any mention of CCAC on a pamphlet is going to confuse readers into thinking that the entire contents of the pamphletand the messages supported by the publisher of the pamphletare endorsed by CCAC. 

Today’s press release outlines how CCAC student Christine Brashier, who wants to form a gun-rights group on campus, will still be subject to unconstitutional censorship as she tries to form her organization. Brashier wants to form a chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), a national organization that "supports the legalization of concealed carry by licensed individuals on college campuses." In April, she created pamphlets to distribute to her classmates encouraging them to join her in forming a campus SCCC chapter. The pamphlets identified her as a "Campus Leader" of the effort to start the chapter, and she distributed copies of the pamphlets to other individuals by hand. 

Brashier was quickly summoned to a meeting with administrators, who told her that passing out her non-commercial pamphlets was prohibited as "solicitation." Furthermore, they insisted that the college pre-approve any pamphlets, that pamphlets like hers would not be approved, and that Brashier destroy all copies of her pamphlet. At one point during the meeting, Dean Yvonne Burns reportedly said, "You may want to discuss this topic but the college does not, and you cannot make us." Brashier was warned that any further efforts would be considered "academic misconduct."

FIRE wrote CCAC President Alex Johnson on April 29 about these violations of Brashier’s First Amendment speech and association rights, pointing out that her free speech in no way constituted solicitation, that CCAC may not condition approval of literature on its viewpoint or content, and that if CCAC recognizes student organizations at all, it must recognize an organization that supports concealed carry on campus. A month later, having received no substantive response, FIRE took Brashier’s case public last week, generating widespread media coverage and a public apology from CCAC for the delayed response.

As a result, Allegheny County Solicitor Mike Adams finally replied to FIRE Monday on CCAC’s behalf. Rather than affirming Brashier’s full expressive rights, however, Adams tried to justify CCAC’s unconstitutional actions after the fact. While Adams assured FIRE that Brashier did not face any disciplinary action and that she did have the right to try to form a SCCC groupreversing the message Brashier received from Dean Burnshe ignored most of the alarming statements by the CCAC administrators and attempted to defend CCAC’s unconstitutional censorship.

Stating that Brashier is free to try to start her groupso long as she obeys the unconstitutional policies, on pain of disciplinary action if she does notis not much of an endorsement of her rights. But that is what CCAC is saying. She must have all of her pamphlets approved before distribution and will not be allowed to use the name of CCAC in any way in her efforts. Since the original pamphlets never would have fooled anyone into believing, even for a minute, that CCAC was endorsing her group’s message or the content of the brochure, students at CCAC are now left totally in the dark about how they can publicly refer to their activities as CCAC students without subjecting themselves to censorship and disciplinary action. That is, unless they accept CCAC’s unconstitutional policy of prior review and let an administrator tell them what is or is not going to be considered OK. These policies chill speech across the campus, and they must be reversed.

Making matters worse, Solicitor Mike Adams relies on a high school case to make his argument about CCAC’s right to censor speech, going on to suggest that CCAC actually supports the messages of student organizations that are recognized on campusincluding the College Democrats and the explicitly Christian organizations:

"A school must also retain the authority to refuse to sponsor student speech that might reasonably be perceived . . . to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy." Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 272 (1988) (emphasis added). [Emphasis in Adams' letter.]

Adams seems not to know one of the most basic points about student organizations at a college: they speak for themselves, not the college. Robert makes the point well: "CCAC has officially recognized chapters of the College Democrats and the Newman Club. Does that mean CCAC officially endorses Democratic politics and Catholicism? Obviously not. Such a conclusion is patently unreasonableas is CCAC’s weak attempt to spin away the violation of a student’s First Amendment rights." Besides, Robert says, "The Supreme Court has determined that prior restraint is rarely justified, even for national security reasons. For Allegheny County to argue in favor of a government veto over privately-produced handbills makes a mockery of the First Amendment. Under this reasoning, Thomas Paine should have sought the British government’s permission to distribute his pamphlet Common Sense."

And as Greg states in the press release, "CCAC’s response was a transparent attempt to defend the indefensible. The college’s justifications for its censorship of Christine Brashier are not only unconstitutional, they are absurd. CCAC students, as well as every citizen of Allegheny County, should feel very disappointed by the county’s apparent disregard of fundamental rights. FIRE will continue to pursue this matter until the First Amendment is restored to CCAC’s campus."

Take action: Tell CCAC to stop fighting the Constitution and to restore the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to its students. Write a letter to CCAC here.

Schools: Community College of Allegheny County