Student Sues Blinn College, Says ‘Free Speech Zone’ Violates First Amendment

May 20, 2015

By Benjamin Wermund at Houston Chronicle

When Blinn College student Nicole Sanders brought a couple of signs to campus to recruit for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter she was trying to start at the Brenham community college, she attracted plenty of attention. Just not the attention she was hoping for.

Sanders, who, with a couple of friends, was demonstrating on campus with a sign advocating for campus carry and one anti-Obama sign, says she was approached by a school administrator and three uniformed and armed campus police officers. She says she was told that, even though Blinn is a public school, she and her friends would need “special permission” to display her signs on campus. Sanders was eventually told she had to stay in the college’s “free speech zone” if she wanted to demonstrate.

Now Sanders, backed by the national Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is suing the school, saying Blinn violated her First Amendment rights. The lawsuit urges the school to get rid of its “free speech zone” — a point of contention on college campuses across the nation, many of which have such zones.

Free speech advocates argue the zones limit speech on government property and are therefore unconstitutional. But colleges have argued they help keep order on busy campuses where students from all backgrounds with a wide variety of views converge.

Calls to Blinn College were not immediately returned Wednesday.

The Blinn case is at least the second in Texas involving the zones. In 2004, a federal judge ruled that a Texas Tech University policy limiting protests to a 20-foot wide gazebo that could hold about 40 people violated students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The foundation, which fought the Texas Tech case, launched a campaign in July to challenge the zones. The Blinn suit is the foundation’s 10th. So far, five of the cases have settled out of court, with schools agreeing to do away with the zones, said Catherine Sevcenko, an attorney at the foundation.

But the Blinn case distinguishes itself from the others nationally for two reasons, Sevcenko said. First, the size of Blinn’s free speech zone is smaller than most. The lawsuit alleges it’s roughly the size of a parking space. Second, the lawsuit alleges that Blinn officials were particularly aggressive: They even approached the protesting students with armed police officers.

Sanders says she was trying to recruit members for the new chapter of the Libertarian-leaning Young Americans for Liberty club she was trying to start on campus in February. The school had already approved the club, she claimed, but administrators approached her after they received complaints about her signs. One of the signs read “LOL” with the “O” replaced with the Obama campaign logo. The other said “Defend gun rights on campus.”

After Sanders was approached by the administrator and officers, she claims another administrator told her she needed an “official event request” approved before soliciting student membership. The administrator also pointed to school policy, which says that a student or organization may only engage in expressive activities that have not gone through this approval process in a designated “Free Speech Area” — an approximately 190-square-foot concrete corner outside the Blinn College Student Center, the lawsuit alleges.

That free speech zone, the lawsuit says, is unconstitutional, because it “quarantines free expression to a tiny fraction of the Blinn College campus, despite the fact that the college has many open areas and sidewalks that are suitable for expressive activities.”

The zones are common at colleges. The foundation estimates that rougly one in six schools in the nation have free speech zones. Sevcenko said the zones’ roots are in the free speech movement of the 1960s, when universities set about establishing speakers’ corners, areas where students could always go to speak their mind.

“At some point the principal got turned on its head and they started using these areas to quarantine speech instead of a go-to spot where you could always express yourself,” Sevcenko said.

Sanders, who is studying political science and wants to go into constitutional law, said she hopes her case will expand free speech on the campus.

“I hope this will make all of Blinn College a free speech area and maybe that more students will be interested in starting clubs without having to jump through hoops just to talk to students they go to school with,” Sanders said.

Schools: Blinn College Cases: Blinn College – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project