YAL Activists Sue University for Violating Their First Amendment Rights

April 30, 2014

By Jason Pye at United Liberty

Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone, student activists associated with Young Americans for Liberty, were stopped by administrators at the University of Hawaii-Hilo from passing out copies of the Constitution to their classmates, and now they’re suing the school for violating their First Amendment rights:

The complaint alleges that on January 16, 2014, plaintiff Merritt Burch, who is president of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), and a fellow student YAL member were participating in an outdoor event where student groups set up tables to distribute literature. Observing other students walking around and handing out items, Burch and her friend walked out from behind YAL’s table to likewise hand out Constitutions and YAL information cards. A UH Hilo administrator ordered Burch and her companion to stop approaching students and get back behind their table, dismissing Burch’s protest about her constitutional rights.

A week later, in an orientation meeting for student organizations, another administrator reiterated the rule against passing out literature. Burch and Vizzone were told that if they wanted to protest, the proper place to do so would be in UH Hilo’s “free speech zone,” a sloping, one-third acre area on the edge of campus. The “free speech zone” represents approximately 0.26% of UH Hilo’s total area and is muddy and prone to flooding in Hilo’s frequent rain. The administrator further observed, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore” and “people can’t really protest like that anymore.”

Burch and Vizzone are challenging the denial of their right to hand out literature and policies restricting the distribution of literature. The suit also challenges UH Hilo’s “free speech zone,” a separate policy requiring students to request permission seven working days prior to engaging in expressive activity in two central outdoor areas on campus, and the failure of UH Hilo officials to adequately train administrators on the rights of college students.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii.

This is the latest in a troubling trend of busybody school administrators who have nothing better to do than crack down on students’ First Amendment rights, apparently not realizing or not caring that everywhere these students happen to be standing is a free speech zone.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is handling the lawsuit on behalf of the students. This legal group, which frequently challenges schools over their policies that suppress students’ civil liberties, recently helped Robert Van Tuinen, a veteran and college student, sue Modesto Junior College after a similar situation. That lawsuit forced the school to change its policies to respect students’ First Amendment rights.

Schools: University of Hawaii at Hilo Cases: University of Hawaii at Hilo – Speech Code Litigation