College Free Speech Zones Violate First Amendment

By July 14, 2015

By Catherine Sevcenko for The Express News

“Don’t mess with Texas” is good advice, but student activist Nicole Sanders has a related warning for Blinn College in Brenham: Don’t mess with the Bill of Rights.

Administrators at Blinn College have repeatedly insisted that Nicole get their permission before expressing her views on campus about gun and privacy rights. This didn’t sit well with Nicole, so with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, she sued the college on May 20 in federal court for violating her First Amendment rights.

Nicole did not come to the decision to sue her school lightly. But things started getting out of hand last February when an administrator — accompanied by three armed policemen — told her she needed “special permission” to advocate for concealed carry on campus and recruit members for a student organization she was forming. Other administrators took six weeks to approve a card she wanted to hand out on campus explaining the Fourth and Fifth amendments.

If Nicole didn’t want to get prior permission to advocate for her views, she had to limit her activities to the “Free Speech Area” at the Brenham campus, which is approximately 16 feet long and 11 feet wide — in other words, roughly the size of a generous parking space.

Blinn College administrators aren’t lawyers, but they should know that while the Fifth Amendment may give them the right to remain silent, it does not grant them the power to silence students. Nobody should need prior permission or be forced into a “Free Speech Area” if they want to support the Bill of Rights. The only “Free Speech Area” that matters is the one created by the First Amendment, and that includes all public sidewalks, parks and open spaces — including those at Blinn College.

When Blinn College administrators enforced their unconstitutional rules against Nicole, she fought back by becoming the 10th plaintiff in FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, which helps students and faculty file civil rights lawsuits against their colleges and universities for violating their First Amendment rights.

Public colleges such as Blinn are bound by the First Amendment. Administrators are government officials, and thus when they stop students from speaking out about issues they are passionate about — be they gun rights or gay rights — it’s unconstitutional censorship.

Nicole joins a growing group of students who have sued to vindicate their free speech rights.Robert Van Tuinen sued Modesto Junior College in California in 2013 after a security guard stopped him from distributing copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. William Jergins and two other students sued Dixie State University in Utah after they were told they couldn’t put up a flier advertising a No Che Day to criticize Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, who died in 1967, because it “disparages an individual.”

Since starting Stand Up For Speech in late 2013, five defendant schools have settled their cases, agreeing to reform campus speech codes, as well as pay attorney fees and damages, thereby restoring the First Amendment rights of 150,000 students nationwide.

Blinn College is not an anomaly in Texas. According to FIRE’s Spotlight database, which tracks the speech codes of more than 400 colleges and universities nationwide, at least 11 Texas schools have policies that violate First Amendment standards, including prominent institutions such as Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin.

Students and their tuition-paying parents should not tolerate officials dictating what college students can say, and when and where they can say it. Nicole Sanders is standing up for the First Amendment at Blinn College. If you are a current or prospective college student, alumnus, alumna or professor, will you be the one to defend free speech on your campus?

Schools: Blinn College