by Debra Saunders
On Sept. 17, Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen decided to celebrate U.S. Constitution Day by handing out copies of the Constitution at Modesto Junior College, where he is a student. If he were at the University of California, Berkeley or another politically correct campus, some liberal students probably would have picked an argument with him and maybe even would have accused him of hate speech.
But as this was Modesto Junior College, Van Tuinen didn’t attract a lot of notice. Until, that is, a security guard told Van Tuinen that he couldn’t hand out the Constitution. Or “The Communist Manifesto,” for that matter. On an edited video, Van Tuinen captured the guard explaining that “passing out anything whatsoever, you have to have permission through the student development office.”
An administrative aide at that office explained the school’s policies for a “time-place-and-manner free speech area.” Students have to sign up in a binder to use a small designated space, and because two students already were protesting, Van Tuinen would have to wait his turn to speak freely and pass out literature.
When Van Tuinen told her he just wanted to pass out copies of the Constitution, she asked, “Um, why?”
Van Tuinen was appalled. When he served in Kuwait, he learned that the military doesn’t put a high premium on free speech. Soldiers don’t have the same rights as students, and the brass had little interest in his pontificating on the Framers’ intent. “That’s when I figured out the service wasn’t the best place for me,” he confided. But who knew that college life would be equally casual about stifling his self-expression?
Yes, Virginia, there is a California college campus where protest is not a major.
Let me confess. In this job, I’ve observed campus protest at its best, that is to say, worst — Berkeley students throwing incendiary objects at the chancellor’s home, tree-sitters camped in a campus grove for 20 interminable months and UC Davis paying a $1 million settlement to pepper-sprayed students. I can’t help it; I find Van Tuinen’s story cute as a button.
But it’s not. It’s not because campus personnel told a student he cannot give out copies of the U.S. Constitution. In a statement, college President Jill Stearns asserted, “There is absolutely no requirement that a student register weeks in advance and hand out his literature only in a small marked area.” But a security guard and staff binder suggest otherwise.
The very fact that a campus has a two-person free speech zone troubles Robert Shibley, senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has aided Van Tuinen in the free speech lawsuit he filed against the college.
‘’We’re seeing a lack of a sense of proportion,” quoth Shibley, “and frankly a fundamental fear of free speech that is very disturbing to see in higher education.”
At community colleges, Shibley added, many students have to balance an academic workload and jobs; they don’t have time to occupy the quad or save the trees. That makes Van Tuinen unique.
And it makes the Modesto Junior College policy all that much harder to understand. It’s 2013; college staff members should understand the sanctity of free speech. Instead, they only saw procedures set out in overly nuanced language that was burped out of committee and based on bland advice from an academic league. Oddly, it seems the policy’s goal was to avoid controversy, not accommodate the exchange of ideas.
Amazingly, college administrators still haven’t figured out that they cannot win this case because their policies step on First Amendment rights. And yes, they are running a college.
Van Tuinen told me he found out about the free speech zone about a week before U.S. Constitution Day. He said he had hoped he would be able to distribute copies of the Constitution, provided by The Heritage Foundation, without interference but brought along a camera just in case.
You could say that Van Tuinen was trolling for trouble. But if handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution without intruding on the liberty of others attracts school security, this country is in trouble.
As the woman in student development succinctly put it: Um, why?
Debra J. Saunders is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. firstname.lastname@example.org.