This Student’s Constitutional Rights Were Violated On the Day Intended to Celebrate Them

September 20, 2013

by Gerard Emershaw at PolicyMic 

Tuesday was Constitution Day, and on this day Modesto Junior College violated the constitutional rights of student Robert Van Tuinen. Van Tuinen attempted to pass out free copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus to his fellow students. A campus police officer stopped Van Tuinen and informed him that he would have to stop because he had not requested permission in advance. As can be seen in the video, the Modesto Junior College’s policy is that a student must fill out an application, provide a copy of his or her school ID, and then confine any distribution of pamphlets to a time scheduled by the college in a small “free speech area” in front of the student center. MJC could not schedule Van Tuinen’s use of this area until September 20 or 27. 

It is absurd that Modesto Junior College would violate a student’s First Amendment rights on any day, but especially on Constitution Day. The college cites “time, place, or manner” restrictions on student speech. According to the Supreme Court, such restrictions on free speech are constitutional if the guideline is content neutral, narrowly tailored to serve significant government interests, and leaves open alternative channels of communication.

While the college’s policy is content neutral in that it would apply to any literature, the policy is not narrowly tailored and does not serve significant interests of the public college. The policy bans all spontaneous student speech. In limiting its designated free speech area to a small concrete area, Modesto Junior College unreasonably limits student speech and removes alternative channels of communication for those students who wish to hand out literature spontaneously. In a 2012 case, a federal judge ruled that a similar policy at the University of Cincinnati was unconstitutional.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), one in six of the country’s top 400 colleges employ similar “free speech zones.” What are these colleges trying to teach their students? Freedom of speech is a natural right and not something on which prior restraint can be imposed by powerful entities. When colleges impose such unconstitutional limits on student speech, they teach their students the falsehood that there is no free speech, only speech permitted by authorities. Such lies endanger the future of freedom.

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