At FIRE, we have noted previous occasions when colleges and universities incurred easily avoidable financial costs as a result of litigation challenging their speech-restrictive policies. The lesson is always the same: By simply respecting their legal and moral obligations to uphold students’ free speech rights, these institutions could have avoided the financial consequences that result when students prevail in court or reach a favorable settlement. In the case of public universities, such costs are typically passed on to the taxpayers, which is a real shame.
The latest public institution to learn this unfortunate lesson is Iowa’s Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). Earlier this month, the college settled student Jacob Dagel’s First Amendment lawsuit concerning a restrictive free speech zone policy. We summarized the case at the time as follows:
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.
Now comes news that DMACC’s agreement with Dagel to settle the lawsuit will cost the college nearly $14,000—$100 to Dagel himself and $13,700 in attorneys’ fees to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented him.
That’s a pretty penny to pony up for being caught doing something that a college’s administration should have known is unlawful and violates their students’ rights.
Hopefully, the good that comes out of this will be that other institutions—not to mention DMACC itself—learn to more closely scrutinize their policies and practices on free speech and pay attention to what the law requires of them. And it could actually be worse: individual administrators are subject to paying monetary damages in their personal capacity (that is, out of their own pockets) if they violate "clearly established" law that a reasonable official in their position would have known about. Just ask former Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari!