Suit Challenges “Free-Speech Zone” at Brenham Community College

May 20, 2015

By Benjamin Wermund at Houston Chronicle

When Nicole Sanders brought a couple of signs to campus to recruit for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter she was trying to start at Blinn College, she attracted plenty of attention – but not the sort she wanted.

Sanders and a couple of friends were demonstrating for “campus carry” gun legislation at the Brenham community college; they also held a sign showing opposition to President Barack Obama. Sanders said a school administrator and three uniformed, armed campus police officers told the students that she and her friends would need “special permission” to display the signs on campus.

Sanders, a 24-year-old sophomore, said she eventually was told she had to stay in the public 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 in federal court, saying Blinn violated her First Amendment rights. The lawsuit urges the school to get rid of its “free-speech zone” – a 190-square-foot concrete corner outside the student center.

Calls to Blinn College were not returned Wednesday.

Similar legal battles have been fought a number of times in Texas, including at the University of Houston and Texas Tech, and on other campuses across the nation. 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.

In 2003, a campus anti-abortion group challenged UH’s now defunct policy requiring student organizations to fill out registration forms and to reserve space on campus to demonstrate. The next year, 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 14th Amendment rights.

The case law has been clear, said David Parrott, executive associate vice president for student affairs at Texas A&M University.

“I would say, don’t do free-speech zones,” said Parrott, who also teaches higher education law at A&M. “Colleges and universities are peculiarly the marketplace of ideas. … The part that many folks misunderstand is everybody who makes decisions at a public institution is the government. The government can’t get at the content of speech, by and large.”

A&M, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston allow students to demonstrate anywhere on campus.

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

Blinn’s free speech zone is smaller than most, Sevcenko said. The lawsuit alleges it’s roughly the size of a parking space. And the lawsuit says Blinn officials were particularly aggressive.

Sanders says she was trying to recruit members for the Libertarian-leaning Young Americans for Liberty club 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.”

The foundation estimates that roughly one in six schools in the nation has a free-speech zone. 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.

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