When government officials say something stupid, their PR folks quickly devise a strategy to “walk back” the statement. Modesto Junior College has skipped walking and is sprinting back its unwise decision to stop a student from distributing copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. As well it should. Here’s the statement that appeared on its Facebook page within hours of FIRE’s press release exposing Modesto’s policy of requiring students to sign up in advance to use a “free speech zone” to express their views:
The Yosemite Community College District’s (YCCD) colleges have free speech areas on campus for activities such as distributing materials on campus. In addition, people can distribute material in the areas generally available to students and the community as long as they don’t “disrupt the orderly operation of the college.” In the case of the YouTube video, it did not appear that the student was disrupting the orderly operation of the college. Therefore, we are looking into the matter. The administration of the YCCD supports the peaceful distribution of the Constitution and other materials on campus, which is why our colleges support Constitution Day with activities each year.
A quarter cheer to Modesto for admitting the obvious: Student Robert Van Tuinen was not disrupting anything when he started handing out copies of the Constitution. But check out the video starting at minute 3:30, when the administrator helpfully pulls out a three-inch binder and gives Van Tuinen a copy of the “procedures and regulations” covering free expression on campus. Those guidelines state:
1. No event, speech, demonstration, activity or other exercise of “Free Speech” on campus shall interfere with or disrupt the educational process or other scheduled activities of the campus or its facilities.
2. To insure no conflicts with scheduled campus events, all college and non-college groups and individuals are to request advance approval.
It also states that “[r]efusal to cooperate with the above guidelines will subject the user to possible punitive action, including, but not limited to, termination of the program in process; denial of further use of Free Speech Areas; Discipline; Probation; Suspension; Expulsion and/or Removal from campus.” How Modesto squares these guidelines with its statement that “people can distribute material in the areas generally available to students” is anybody’s guess.
Banning the distribution of copies of the Constitution on a public college campus has attracted attention from both national and local media. FoxNews.com has provided prominent coverage, and the Modesto Bee newspaper ran an article on the situation. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff commented on The Huffington Post as well, reminding readers that Van Tuinen’s experience is not an isolated incident. Other coverage from TechDirt, Reason, Popehat, and The University Herald can be found here, here, here, and here. And this is just a sampling.
The sad irony of this incident should not cloud the fundamental principle at stake: the ability of citizens spontaneously to engage in civic discussion. As the Supreme Court reiterated in 2002, the First Amendment was designed to prevent the “evil” inherent in “any action of the government” that “might prevent such free and general discussion of public matters as seems absolutely essential to prepare the people for an intelligent exercise of their rights as citizens. Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc. of N. Y., Inc. v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 168 (2002) (citations omitted). Although the extensive media coverage is welcome, the fact that such a blatant attack on free discussion took place on a public college campus at all—and the fact that one in six colleges maintains free speech zones—remains deeply troubling.