Victory for Free Speech: Iowa College Folds, Settling Student’s Challenge to Free Speech Zone

By May 9, 2013

A few weeks ago, we blogged about a student’s challenge to a restrictive free speech zone policy at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in Iowa. This week, the welcome news comes that the college has decided to settle the case rather than allow the lawsuit to continue. As a result, student Jacob Dagel has vindicated not only his own First Amendment rights, but those of his classmates and peers as well. 

Dagel challenged the public institution’s strict limitations on where students were allowed to distribute flyers and other literature—a peaceful and time-honored form of expressive activity protected by the First Amendment. Under DMACC policy, students were allowed to leaflet only in a single hallway with tables inside of the campus student center. Additionally, the college required students to obtain a permit to utilize its free speech zone a full 10 business days in advance. Finally, according to Dagel’s complaint (PDF), "the College retain[ed] unfettered discretion to determine whether student speech may occur at all." This policy obviously provided DMACC with a tremendous amount of discretion over students’ free speech activities, in addition to the clear restrictions it placed on students’ ability to engage in protected expression on campus. 

Indeed, Dagel found his own political speech silenced by the policy and eventually filed suit in federal court with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF now reports that, as a result of the settlement of the case, the college will no longer limit student expressive activity to the designated free speech zone, nor will it require 10 business days’ worth of advance notice. As ADF recognizes, this is certainly to the benefit of all students at DMACC:

"Colleges should be the marketplace of ideas. The college has done the right thing in recognizing this by agreeing to end its problematic policy concerning the free speech of students," said Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker. "Free speech should not be censored or limited to a tiny area on campus, and college students should not need permission to hand out fliers—a classic exercise in constitutionally protected free speech."

It is unfortunate that another college had to be sued by one of its students and face legal pressure before it would do the proper (and obvious) thing and open up more of its campus to First Amendment activity. DMACC also joins an ignominious list of schools that have been sued over their free speech zones and either suffered an embarrassing defeat in court or chose to settle in the students favor. This includes, of course, the University of Cincinnati, which last year saw a federal court strike down a policy restricting all "demonstrations, pickets, and rallies" to an area making up just 0.1% of its 137-acre West Campus—a policy that FIRE had been warning the university about for years.

Hopefully, schools will now pay closer attention to the legal landscape regarding free speech zones and the DMACC settlement will cause the remaining scofflaws to examine their own policies on campus expressive activity. As always, FIRE stands by ready to help with the necessary policy revisions.