Speech Free and FIRE-d up on U.S. Constitution Day at Modesto Junior College

September 17, 2014

By Nan Austin at The Modesto Bee

The First Amendment got some exercise at Modesto Junior College, with free-speech walls displaying the profound as well as the profane. Student groups handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution on both MJC campuses in honor of Constitution Day.

“I like it. I think it’s a good way to get things in a public forum,” said theater major Ethan Lang on Wednesday after posting this quote by a favorite comedian, the late George Carlin: “The best thing about anything is not knowing what it is.”

Looking around the posts, Lang said, “You can see where it turns into a conversation, an anonymous conversation.” He added, “Nothing says free speech like a good argument.”

Studying the massed missives interspersed with naughty line drawings on display in the east campus quad, student Shari Scott said she had mixed feelings. “Some of it’s interesting. Some of it’s fun. Some of it hurts – so ridiculous,” Scott said.

The messages spanned a wide gamut, from cheery to salacious to heartfelt. Most poked a youthful finger in the eye of what their parents would have called The Establishment.

“Marijuana is not a crime.”

“Common sense is a flower that does not bloom in everybody’s garden.”

“Give me liberty or give me meth.”

“God is a gay black woman and proud.”

“Government is a lie, people just support it.”

Below some claims was an asterisk and “citation needed.”

Communications major Paige Tengeluk drew a happy face and wrote: “Change starts with us.” She chose to go with an upbeat message. “I feel like happiness kind of moves you. It’s contagious,” Tengeluk said.

“Everybody was happy to present their opinions,” said wall organizer Rob Van Tuinen. The walls were taken down shortly after 4 p.m. but will be saved, he said.

The laid-back chatter in the sunshine was a very different scene than a year ago, when video footage showed a security officer and staff member blocking an outraged and shaking Van Tuinen from distributing copies of the Constitution on the quad. He was told free speech was allowed only on a small cement area, by appointment.

With support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Van Tuinen sued MJC and the Yosemite Community College District over free-speech policies. The lawsuit was settled with changes to the policies and a $50,000 payment to Van Tuinen.

Wednesday, Van Tuinen said $40,000 of that paid the lawyers and $10,000 went to pay bills and buy a truck for his dad, who lost his job a year ago. “It was gone before summer,” the Army veteran said with a sigh.

He now leads the Young Americans for Liberty club, which joined the Associated Students of MJC and the College Republicans to hand out copies of the Constitution this year.

Under the Young Americans banner, Joe Cohn of FIRE spoke at Founders Hall on Wednesday evening. In an email, Cohn spoke of last year’s controversy.

“Thankfully, because of his collaboration with FIRE to challenge the campus policy, students at Modesto Junior College no longer find their right to engage in free speech restricted to a tiny so-called ‘free speech zone.’ ” Cohn said.

Schools: Modesto Junior College Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day