By Jo-Carolyn Goode at Houston Style Magazine
HOUSTON, March 20, 2015—Blinn College student Nicole Sanders filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the public institution near Houston today after being told by an administrator last February that she would need “special permission” to display a gun rights sign and collect signatures for her student group on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) assisted Sanders in filing the federal lawsuit, the tenth lawsuit filed as part of FIRE’s national Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
The lawsuit challenges Blinn’s policy of restricting speech to a tiny “Free Speech Area,” as well as the process that led the college to take over a month to approve a palm-sized card Sanders wanted to hand out to students explaining their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.
“Blinn College administrators sacrificed the First Amendment in order to stop Nicole from talking about the Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments,” said FIRE Associate Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko. “But public colleges like Blinn are bound by the First Amendment, which gives all citizens—including college students—the right to speak out on the issues they are passionate about, whether gun rights or gay rights.”
On February 2, 2015, Sanders and a fellow activist sought to recruit students on the Brenham campus of Blinn College to join Young Americans for Liberty, a student organization Sanders was forming. The two held signs for an hour and a half outside of the Student Center. One sign read “LOL,” with the Obama presidential campaign logo replacing the “O,” and another sign stated, “Defend Gun Rights on Campus.”
After they were done, Sanders and her friend went into the Student Center, where the Coordinator of the Student Center and Campus Events and three armed campus police officers approached them. The administrator told them they needed “special permission” to collect sign-ups for their club and display their signs. The official then added, “I don’t know that you can get special permission” to advocate for gun rights, explaining that she was not against guns, but “on campus, I’m not so sure.”
Sanders requested clarification from then-Dean of Student Life Mordecai Brownlee, who sent her copies of two college policies. According to the first, Blinn College requires that student organizations request permission a month in advance and gain approval from four administrators for any on- or off-campus expressive activity. In addition, student organizations must provide administrators with an “Activity Report Form” describing what happened at the activity, including details about the activity’s content and student discussions.
Under Blinn’s policies, students who wish to engage in expressive activity without prior approval from administrators must do so in a “free speech area” designated by the Vice President of Student Life for each campus. Sanders was told to go to an area that comprises less than 0.007 percent of the 62-acre Brenham campus.
“Blinn College thinks it’s acceptable to have a free speech zone that is the size of a parking spot. But the Constitution’s free speech zone is the size of the United States,” said Sevcenko. “This case is yet another example of college administrators trying to quarantine the First Amendment.”
Sanders’s federal lawsuit challenges Blinn College’s restrictions on free expression, including the policy that requires that college officials approve all material distributed on campus.
In addition to challenging Blinn College’s speech codes, the lawsuit also alleges that Sanders’s ceramics professor threatened her with retaliation if she sought to take action against the school. Following the February 2 incident, which had received some news coverage, Professor Doug Peck allegedly told Sanders in front of four other people to “think really hard” before “bringing some organization to campus” that would “cause havoc” for the college. He went on to say he would “protect me and mine” and that she “better think” before taking any action.
“When I started college I wanted to get students excited about politics and give them a clear understanding of their rights granted to them under the Constitution,” said Sanders. “Under the speech codes at Blinn College, I soon learned it was going to be very challenging to engage with students about my views. This lawsuit will grant all Blinn students the opportunity to express ideas, opinions, and views different from the status quo without fear of punishment.”
FIRE has retained First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere and his colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman of Davis Wright Tremaine to serve as counsel for Sanders. Earlier this month, the same legal team vindicated the free speech rights of a student group at Western Michigan University who filed suit with FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project after the university demanded the group pay for extra security to host rapper and social activist Boots Riley on campus.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.