The search for truth at Modesto Junior College

March 6, 2014

by Debra J. Saunders at SFGate

Last year in a column, “Speaking Truth to Power at Modesto Junior College,”  I wrote about Army veteran/student Robert Van Tuinen who decided to celebrate U.S. Constitution Day on Sept. 17 by handing out copies of the Constitution at said institution of higher learning. A security guard told Van Tuinen that he couldn’t hand out the Constitution. An administrative aide explained the campus “time-place-and-manner free speech area.” Van Tuinen reached out to academic freedom group The FIRE and sued.


The Yosemite Community College District reportedly settled the lawsuit. Or  maybe not.

Here’s  a link to the settlement.

Then Chancellor Joan E. Smith wrote this piece that ran in the Modesto Bee. Smith wrote:

 Recently, FIRE published and distributed another error-filled press release. Let’s start with the facts.

FIRE reported that “MJC prevented Mr. Van Tuinen from handing out the Constitution.”

Modesto Junior College did not prevent Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution. There might be some disagreement on this point, but that did not occur. The reports failed to mention that at the same time Van Tuinen was videotaping his discussion with clerical and district staff on MJC’s East Campus, the Associated Students of MJC were handing out U.S. Constitutions on MJC’s West Campus in celebration of Constitution Day. This event was well-advertised and extensively publicized on both campuses.

But if you watch the above video, you can see that a security guard and clerical staffer told Van Tuinen he could not hand out copies of the Constitution without going through the process. (Also, the alternate Constitution event is news to me, and I reached out to the college at the time I wrote my column.) What gives?

Here’s the answer I received from Public Affairs Director Nick Stavrianoudakis:

If you listen to everything on that video, he was not prevented from doing or passing out anything.  In fact he could have, and maybe did, continue to do so.  Again he was never stopped from passing out anything.  He was asked to sign in (which is the advance check-in that we eliminated).  It may “look” otherwise, but if you listen to the questions being asked, the answers, the gaps in the tape, and the misrepresentation of who he’s conversing with (ie,  clerical staff – not an administrator), then it does make sense.  The Chancellor admits, there might be some disagreement on this point.

The other point is that the Constitution day event was organized by MJC student government and supported by the college and district, and was being held on the “west campus” and publicized and advertised as such, but he was on “east campus.”. The distance between the two is less than two miles.  The question one could ask is why would he be inquiring where he can pass out Constitutions on east campus, when Constitutions were being  passed on west campus (both paper versions and info on downloading it from the web)… avoiding the big celebratory Constitution Day event?

The clerical staff on the video tape continued to be misrepresented as an administrator who would not let him pass out Constitutions. In reality she was the contact for students to get information as to how to form clubs or sign up for campus events, etc.

The Fire’s Greg Lukianoff says, “I don’t see how we’re being anything but accommodating here.” The Fire now refers to clerical staff as clerical staffer in press releases.

As for the Public Affairs response, I guess what the administration is arguing is: If a security guard or clerical staffer tells a student not to do something, the student is free to and perhaps should ignore college staff completely. There might be some disagreement on this point.



Schools: Modesto Junior College Cases: Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day