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Court rejects Pierce College’s attempt to dismiss lawsuit against its tiny ‘free speech zone’

  • Court to college: Despite your restrictive policies, the open areas of your campus are public forums for student speakers.
  • Los Angeles Pierce College, part of the nation’s largest community college district, restricts speech to .003 percent of campus.
  • Student Kevin Shaw sued administrators at Pierce College and the Los Angeles Community College District after he was prevented from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus.

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 18, 2018 — In an order issued yesterday, a federal district court denied Los Angeles Community College District and Pierce College administrators’ motion to dismiss student Kevin Shaw’s First Amendment lawsuit. Finding that the open spaces of public colleges like Pierce College are traditional public forums — “regardless of Pierce’s regulations” — the court rejected the school’s argument that its tiny “free speech area” was constitutional.

On March 28 of last year, student Kevin Shaw and attorneys from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a lawsuit against administrators at LACCD and Pierce College after Shaw was told he could not hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on behalf of Young Americans for Liberty outside the college’s tiny free speech zone, which comprises just .003 percent of the campus. Pierce College is one of nine schools in the LACCD, which serves over 150,000 students and is the largest community college district in the United States.

“The court’s ruling sends an important message to colleges nationwide that still restrict student speech to free speech zones,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “The campus is a college student’s public square. It’s their space to be engaged citizens. The public recognizes this. So do courts across the country. Now it’s time for LACCD to follow suit.”

In October, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in Shaw’s case, arguing that Shaw successfully alleged First Amendment violations.

Yesterday’s opinion from the United States District Court for the Central District of California concluded that Shaw’s lawsuit indeed alleges violations of his First Amendment rights and can proceed. The suit targets LACCD and Pierce College policies confining all student speech to campus “free speech areas” and a Pierce policy requiring students to obtain a permit before using the tiny area it allows for speech.

The court declared that the open, outdoor areas of Pierce’s campus are public forums for speech, regardless of institutional policies claiming otherwise. “This characterization makes sense,” the court wrote, “because after all, what is a university’s purpose but to expose students to new ideas and spark dialogue?” Rejecting the argument that having a free speech area is necessary to the orderly running of the campus, the court reasoned that the school’s “literally ‘narrow’ free speech area, comprising 616 square feet on a campus spanning hundreds of acres … does not achieve Defendants’ stated goals without unnecessarily impeding students’ First Amendment rights.”

Although the court upheld Shaw’s First Amendment challenges, it granted the school’s motion to dismiss his claims for monetary damages against administrators based on “qualified immunity,” which shields public officials from damages for personal liability if the law is not “clearly established.” The court cited a 2011 district court decision finding that LACCD’s free speech area policy did not violate the First Amendment rights of non-students in holding that administrators could not be held individually responsible for restricting Shaw’s rights.

Shaw is represented by FIRE and co-counsel Arthur Willner, a partner at Leader & Berkon LLP.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.


Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

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