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

Category: Free Speech
Schools: Modesto Junior College

On September 17, 2013, three Modesto Junior College (MJC) students distributed copies of the U.S. Constitution in front of the student center, in observance of Constitution Day. Roughly 10 minutes after they began, the students were approached by a campus police officer who informed them that students were prohibited from distributing materials without prior permission. When MJC student Robert Van Tuinen protested that such a restriction violated his right to free speech, the officer ignored his claims and directed him to the Student Development Office. There, Van Tuinen was told by MJC clerical staffer Christine Serrano that the school’s “time, place, and manner” policies required students to register events five days in advance and that all events must be held inside a small “free speech area.” Because the area was in use that day, Van Tuinen was not only told he would have to register his event, but that he might have to wait days—or even weeks—to hold it. FIRE wrote to MJC President Jill Stearns on September 19, 2013, pointing out that MJC’s actions were blatantly unconstitutional and calling on the school to immediately rescind its policies. When MJC did not do so, FIRE worked with Van Tuinen and the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine to coordinate a lawsuit that was filed in federal court on October 10, 2013. The lawsuit was settled six months later after MJC revised its policies to allow free expression in the open areas of campus and paid Van Tuinen $50,000 for legal expenses and to compensate him for the violation of his First Amendment rights.