MJC Given Muzzle Award Over Constitution Incident

April 9, 2014

By Nan Austin at The Modesto Bee

Modesto Junior College has earned the dubious national distinction of a 2014 Jefferson Muzzle award, one of nine instances of what the judges considered egregious attempts to censor free expression.

MJC made the list for denying a student the right to hand out free copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, Sept. 17. A staff member was caught on videotape saying free speech was available only during a reserved time slot on a small concrete area on the east campus quad.

On the list compiled by the nonprofit, the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the college shares billing with the White House, for denying photo access to the president. Another award went to the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security for trying to shut down humorous images of their logos used on T-shirts and mugs. “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens,” was one of the images in dispute.

Another goes to Pemberton Township High School Principal Ida Smith in New Jersey for shutting down student journalism, including an article on what was happening. “Once again, Principal Smith stepped in and – somehow avoiding being crushed under the weight of all the irony in the world – declared that no article concerning censorship of student publications would appear in The Stinger,” the Muzzle article comments.

For MJC, the Muzzle mention includes details of the incident involving Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen. Colleges need to keep order, the Muzzle article says, “But in designating a single free speech area on campus, the MJC administration got it backwards: Free speech on a public college campus is not the exception but the rule.”

Van Tuinen, with the backing of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sued the Yosemite Community College District, which oversees MJC. A settlement awarded Van Tuinen $50,000, much of that going to pay legal fees, and the offending policy was changed to allow free expression in open areas of the campus.

The FIRE notoriety and viral YouTube video brought hundreds of phone calls and emails from around the nation, including death threats and hate speech, MJC President Jill Stearns said.

In a March 4 Opinions piece published in The Modesto Bee, YCCD Chancellor Joan Smith maintained the district’s actions and policies were misrepresented. She called the lawsuit a “sue first, ask questions later” approach and chastised media coverage of the case. “For the past six months, the Yosemite Community College District has endured a series of inaccurate reporting, false accusations and organizational character attacks at the hands of this approach to resolve issues,” Smith wrote.

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