UH Settles First Amendment Suit

December 3, 2014

By Colin M. Stewart at Hawaii Tribune-Herald

A pair of University of Hawaii at Hilo students is claiming a victory for free speech after the school agreed Tuesday to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed in April.

Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone sued the university after an administrator stopped Burch from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution and another told them to restrict a protest of the National Security Agency to a “free speech zone” on campus.

In line with the settlement, the university revised its speech policies systemwide to allow free speech and the distribution of literature in “all areas generally available to students and the community” without requiring that students seek permission first. UH also agreed to pay $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and damages. It also creates a dispute resolution process for students who think their First Amendment rights have been violated.

The students filed the suit with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) as part of its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

“I’m so happy that the University of Hawaii has revised its policies, and I’m grateful for the help from FIRE and our attorneys,” Burch said. “Now, students across the University of Hawaii system can exercise their First Amendment rights without fear that they will be disciplined.”

Her co-plaintiff agreed.

“It is great to see these changes and to know that we can express ourselves freely throughout campus,” Vizzone said.

In a press release issued Tuesday morning, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff praised the students for standing up to the university system.

“The lawsuit led to a constructive conversation with UH, and today President David Lassner has set an example by implementing policies that guarantee free speech to the 59,000 students enrolled in the UH system,” he said.

In an emailed press release issued Tuesday afternoon, the UH system confirmed settling the federal lawsuit, saying it expects the case to be dismissed with prejudice in the next several weeks, meaning it cannot be re-filed.

“The settlement agreement states that this action does not constitute an admission of liability on the part of the University or its employees who were sued,” the release reads.

“We are pleased to have resolved this lawsuit. As a public institution, the University of Hawaii is committed to upholding the constitutional rights of expression of its students. As part of the settlement, the university has updated and modernized longstanding policies regarding the exercise of free speech rights on the university’s campuses.”

The issue of free speech on campus came to a head in January, when Burch, who is president of the UH-Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, and another student were stopped while handing out copies of the Constitution at a student organization fair. About a week later, an administrator told Burch and Vizzone they should move a protest against NSA surveillance to the campus’ “free speech zone,” which is located in a small, remote area prone to flooding, the release reads.

Less than a month after FIRE attorneys Robert Coorn-Revere, Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman, of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, filed the suit April 24, UH-Hilo announced it would stop limiting student expression to the “free speech zone,” paving the way for Tuesday’s settlement, the release states.

Among the changes to UH’s policy is the inclusion of a “Commitment to Free Expression” section:

“The University of Hawaii is committed to the free and open exchange of ideas and affirms the rights of members of the university community to engage in speech and other expressive activity guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and by Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution of the State of Hawaii. These activities may be conducted at such times and places and in such a manner to assure the orderly conduct and least interference with the University responsibilities as a public institution for higher education and scholarly inquiry.”

The new policy specifies noncommercial student speech is permitted in all areas generally available to students and the community without advance permission, including open areas, sidewalks, walkways or internal streets and other similar common areas.

Schools: University of Hawaii at Hilo Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project University of Hawaii at Hilo – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit