By James D. Kellogg at Brenner Brief
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado, May 2, 2014 – Another university with a “free speech zone” policy faces a lawsuit for restricting the First Amendment rights of students. Two students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo filed a lawsuit in federal court on April 24, 2014, claiming administrators ordered them to stop handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs, Merrit Burch and Anthony Vizzone, are challenging the denial of their right to hand out literature and UH Hilo’s free speech zone policy.
The complaint states that on January 16, 2014, Ms. Burch and Mr. Vizzone, members of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), were participants in an event in which student groups were distributing literature from tables. Burch and Vizzone walked out from behind their table to hand out copies of the Constitution. A university administrator ordered them to stop.
During an orientation meeting for student organizations the following week, another administrator reiterated the rule against passing out literature and said, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore” and “people can’t really protest like that anymore.” 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”, which is a wet 1/3 acre area on the edge of the 115 acre campus.
Administrator’s maintain that university policy takes precedent over Constitutional rights. According to the complaint, Ellen Kusano, director of Student Affairs said, “It’s not about your rights in this case, it’s about the University policy that you can’t approach people,” according to the complaint filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
FIRE is a civil-liberties watchdog group that defends the rights of college students, often in cases stemming from “politically correct” censorship. Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, wrote in a statement that UH Hilo’s action was “absolutely unacceptable.”
A “free speech zone” is a tiny portion of campus, usually far away from the main thoroughfares. Designating a free speech zone is not about keeping noisy demonstrations away from quiet study spaces. It’s a way ofsquelching spontaneous action.
The UH Hilo case follows a recent successful court challenge to college free speech zones in Virginia. The Virginia Community College System agreed to suspend its student demonstrations policy in response to a lawsuit filed by Christian Parks, a Thomas Nelson Community College student barred from preaching on campus.
Coast to coast, these kinds of restrictions on student speech are a widespread problem,” said Parks’ attorney, David Hacker of the Christian legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom.
Colleges and universities are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas and should be encouraging debate,” Hacker said. “Instead, too many are worried about offending someone.
According to the lawsuit, Parks was preaching to his fellow students in a courtyard last year when a campus police officer ordered him to stopbecause “the content of his speech might offend someone.”
About a week later, Parks claims the officer again silenced him. School officials said he was violating a policy that allows demonstrations only by recognized student organizations, requires four days advance notice, and limits the activity to a specific area. Parks quit preaching for fear of disciplinary action, but said the policy went too far and needed to be changed.
FIRE says about six in 10 colleges nationwide have policies that violate First Amendment rights — and about one in six impose “free speech zones” like the policy at issue in the Virginia case — even though such restrictions rarely survive constitutional challenges.
On February 24, 2014, Modesto Junior College in California agreed to drop its free-speech zone and pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Robert Van Tuinen, a student barred from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day. The videotaped incident drew national media attention.
“Modesto Junior College students will now be able to exercise their First Amendment rights across campus,” said Lukianoff. “But because 59% of colleges nationwide maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict student speech, there’s much more work to be done.”