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Thomas Nelson C.C. Student Challenges Campus Speech Policy

By March 24, 2014

Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) student Christian Parks was twice told to stop preaching on campus because of a Virginia Community College System (VCCS) policy (PDF) allowing only recognized student organizations to demonstrate on campus, and even then only with four days’ notice and within boundaries to be determined by school administrators. On March 13, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit (PDF) on Parks’ behalf alleging that the policy, enforced through TNCC’s Student Code of Conduct, infringes on the First Amendment rights of Parks and other TNCC students.

There are several causes for concern with the VCCS policy (PDF), perhaps the strangest of which is that “[o]nly organizations recognized by the college may sponsor demonstrations on college property.” It is contrary to both law and basic common sense to allow students to exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms only in already-established groups. This restriction prevents individuals from speaking out when they hold a truly unique viewpoint—precisely when we should encourage a student to share his views, so that he can contribute something new to the “marketplace of ideas.”

And this provision—particularly coupled with the four-day notice requirement—prevents students from engaging in spontaneous speech in response to ongoing debates or current events. New matters of public concern pop up every day—there can’t possibly be a student organization created to address each of them. Even if an ambitious student were motivated to take the steps necessary to speak out on a new issue, his point might be moot by the time he recruits members for a new group, applies for recognition, and waits an additional four days. More likely, a student who is afraid of being punished will simply give up on demonstrating altogether. Either result is unacceptable. By requiring advanced notice and allowing students to speak their minds only as part of officially recognized groups, the college’s policy creates an unlawful burden for students wishing to protest on topics for which there isn’t already a student group.

Making the policy even worse is its provision that the “[p]recise boundaries” (PDF) of the demonstration “shall be set by agreement among the College administration, the organizations involved, and those in charge of any building specifically involved.” In other words, administrators can decide on a case-by-case basis where exactly student groups can demonstrate. According to Parks’ complaint, VCCS provides no guidelines (PDF) as to how administrators should determine space restrictions, making students especially vulnerable to selective enforcement and content- and viewpoint-based censorship.

Indeed, ADF reports, “An officer from the college’s police department told [Parks] he must stop preaching because the content of his speech might offend someone.” If this is true, TNCC has already engaged in viewpoint discrimination. A public college like TNCC may not limit speech to only that which it believes no one will find offensive.

FIRE will keep an eye on this case, Parks v. The Members of the State Board of the Virginia Community College System. Check back for updates, and read the full complaint on ADF’s website (PDF).