YCCD gets extension in Modesto Junior College free speech lawsuit

December 28, 2013

by Nan Austin at The Modesto Bee

MODESTO — The Yosemite Community College District will get eight more weeks to settle a free speech lawsuit, with the filing of a stipulation to that effect.

The reprieve from a Dec. 30 deadline in the case came after Modesto Junior College suspended its requirement that students stand in a small concrete corner of the quad and get advance permission to speak, said MJC student Robert Van Tuinen.

The case stems from a Sept. 17 incident on the east campus, when Van Tuinen was not allowed to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution by the student center on Constitution Day. Video of him arguing with a security officer and administrators, posted on YouTube, has drawn more than 167,000 views and national attention.

The college received thousands of emails and more than 500 phone calls over the next week. Some included death threats, MJC President Jill Stearns said in a Sept. 27 statement. “There is absolutely no requirement that a student register weeks in advance and hand out his literature only in a small marked area,” Stearns said, blaming the incident on a misunderstanding.

Updated procedures were laid out for the YCCD board’s review at a Dec. 11 meeting. Although largely enforcing common-sense limits to disruption of foot traffic or classes, the overarching policy affirms designated “free speech areas” as the only places available to exercise free expression.

Changes are being considered by district governance committees and will come to the board for approval early in 2014, said YCCD Chancellor Joan Smith on Friday.

“Suggested policy changes have been going through the committee processes and will be going to the board soon. The interim procedures went to the board, as information only, in December. These eliminate the challenged portions of the old procedures,” Smith said via email. The district is making changes, she added, “because it values freedom of expression for staff, students and members of the community.”

Reached by phone Friday, Van Tuinen said he wasn’t sure what additional changes would be needed to settle the lawsuit, but for now, the free speech areas are gone. “That was one of the goals, to stop people from enforcing that little zone,” he said. “Everything’s pretty much covered. It’s just the end of the process.”

The stipulation gives the district until Feb. 24 to file its legal response to the complaint. It had been due Dec. 30. Van Tuinen is represented by the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, which is being paid by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“FIRE welcomes this development as a sign that Modesto Junior College is making important progress towards bringing its policies in line with the First Amendment,” said foundation President Greg Lukianoff. “Today, Robert Van Tuinen and over 17,000 fellow students and faculty members may exercise their First Amendment rights without being confined to a free speech zone or required to register in advance.”

Though the complaint asks for damages, Van Tuinen said he does not expect to receive any money from the lawsuit and anticipates just having legal fees and court costs paid. He filed the lawsuit, he said, “to know my fellow students won’t be treated that way.”

Van Tuinen said he has not made any further attempts to speak freely on campus, “but there are things I want to do in the future, specifically about free speech.”

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