MJC student files freedom of speech lawsuit against college

October 10, 2013

by Nan Austin at The Modesto Bee

MODESTO – A Modesto Junior College student has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school and officials who blocked him from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.

Videos of MJC student Robert Van Tuinen got more than 153,000 hits on YouTube. The college received more than 500 phone calls and thousands of emails from across the nation regarding the incident, some including hate speech or death threats, officials said.

The complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fresno, seeks an injunction against school policies restricting freedom of speech and unspecified damages and attorney fees.

Reached Thursday, Van Tuinen said he doesn’t expect to make anything off the lawsuit. “This is not about money,” he said. “The complaint pretty much lays it out pretty well. I just don’t want to see it happen to anybody else.”

Lawyers from the Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles offices of Davis Wright Tremaine filed the lawsuit on behalf of Van Tuinen, 26, of Modesto. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is providing financial support for the legal action, said spokesman Nico Perrino.

Van Tuinen, an Army veteran, was handing out fliers outside the Student Center on Sept. 17 when a campus security officer stopped him and took him to speak to Christine Serrano, an MJC administrative specialist. Serrano told him he could pass out fliers only inside a small cement block on the campus quad after speaking by appointment with an administrator and filling out paperwork, and then only on a scheduled future date.

The unnamed officer and Serrano are listed as defendants in the lawsuit, as are the Yosemite Community College District, Chancellor Joan Smith, MJC President Jill Stearns and several additional administrators.

Smith and Sterns issued a joint statement after the filing: “We do not comment on pending litigation; however, we express our thanks to those individuals willing to stand up for our Constitution and expression of free speech. We affirm the commitment of the college and district to civil discourse.

“We appreciate all points of view across the spectrum and support every individual’s right to express their view. Modesto Junior College and the Yosemite Community College District wholly support the state and federal constitutions and student free speech.”

In an earlier letter, Stearns wrote, “There is absolutely no requirement that a student register weeks in advance and hand out his literature only in a small marked area.”

However, the lawsuit lists policies that appear to contradict state law by limiting free speech to one small area on each campus, for up to eight hours per semester per individual, and only after giving administrators five days to approve materials being handed out.

The policy “functions as a licensing scheme,” the complaint argues, with penalties that could include expulsion or removal from campus.

The complaint claims the actions of the defendants “have caused Mr. Van Tuinen to refrain from expressing his beliefs or distributing literature while on campus for fear of being punished under college or district policies.”

Citing free speech rights of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and California’s state constitution, the lawsuit says denial of Von Tuinen’s rights constitutes an irreparable injury and has caused him significant emotional pain and anguish, asking the court for damages as well as legal costs.

It also asks the court to grant a permanent injunction restraining enforcement of MJC policies that limit the time, place and dates of free speech that is not disruptive.

Van Tuinen graduated from Modesto High in 2006, joining the Army that summer and serving in Kuwait as a satellite communication systems operator-maintainer. He is majoring in photography at MJC, but said he now is considering a career in journalism.

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