Kevin Shaw on the campus of Pierce College. (Dawn Bowery/FIRE)
WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2017 — The Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a statement of interest in a California student’s lawsuit against his college’s free speech zone policies.
In March, Los Angeles Pierce College student Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit challenging Pierce College and Los Angeles Community College District policies that restrict student free speech rights to tiny “free speech zones.” The lawsuit is part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Million Voices Campaign.
“The United States has an interest in protecting the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” according to the statement of interest, a brief filed by the attorney general expressing the interests of the United States in a pending lawsuit. “The right to free speech lies at the heart of a free society and is the ‘only effectual guardian of every other right.’”
The statement of interest argues that, based on the facts alleged in Shaw’s lawsuit, Pierce College and the district’s policies and practices violate student First Amendment rights and denied Shaw “his right to engage in expressive activity in a public forum.” Shaw is currently awaiting a Nov. 14 hearing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
“I am humbled to have the support of the Department of Justice,” said Shaw. “Their statement affirms what I’ve believed all along — that the First Amendment is essential to American progress, and nowhere more so than on a college campus.”
In November 2016, Shaw attempted to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and recruit new members for his student group, Young Americans for Liberty, along a main public walkway through campus. As he prepared, he was approached by an administrator who told him that he could not distribute literature outside the campus free speech zone, a tiny area on campus measuring approximately 616 square feet and comprising about .003 percent of the total area of Pierce College’s 426-acre campus.
Shaw was also told he must fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone. He was informed that he would be asked to leave campus if he refused to comply.
“FIRE is grateful for the Department of Justice’s decision to file a statement of interest in our lawsuit,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “As the department rightly recognizes, these policies severely restrict the expressive rights of all students on each of the nine district campuses. We cannot allow the First Amendment rights that Kevin Shaw and his fellow students possess to be taken away by administrative fiat.”
The lawsuit was filed on March 28 in partnership with Arthur Willner, a partner at Leader & Berkon LLP, who is co-counsel with FIRE in the case. In addition to challenging Pierce College’s unconstitutional free speech zone and permit requirement, the lawsuit also challenges an LACCD policy that requires the president of each LACCD college to designate at least one free speech zone on their campus. With approximately 150,000 students, the LACCD is the largest community college district in the country.
“This lawsuit presents Pierce with the opportunity to move to the right side of this issue by ending its unconstitutional violation of its students’ First Amendment rights,” said Willner.
If you are a student who has been censored on campus, FIRE and its Legal Network partners stand ready to protect your First Amendment rights in court. Students interested in submitting their case to FIRE’s Million Voices Campaign can do so through FIRE’s online case submission form. Attorneys interested in joining FIRE’s Legal Network can apply on FIRE’s website.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org