ELLISVILLE, Miss., Sept. 4, 2019 — When Mike Brown tried to poll his fellow college students about legalizing marijuana, he hoped to spark a dialogue about civil liberties. Instead, he was deprived of his own: The campus police chief hauled him into his office and told him he should’ve been “smarter” than to exercise his First Amendment rights without the college’s permission.
The public Mississippi institution twice stopped Brown from exercising his free speech rights when he tried to recruit fellow students for a campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.
In April, Brown and two other individuals held up a sign designed to poll students on the legalization of recreational marijuana. But Jones College administrators quickly summoned campus police because the group hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork — which requires administrative approval and a minimum three-day waiting period before “gathering for any purpose” anywhere on campus.
Brown and another student were taken to the police chief’s office while their friend, a non-student, was escorted to his car and told to leave immediately and not return, or he’d face arrest. Back in the chief’s office, the police chief told Brown he should have known better than to blatantly exercise his free speech rights on campus without administrative approval.
“Some people get in trouble for smoking weed, but at Jones College, I got in trouble just for trying to talk about it,” said Brown. “College is for cultivating thought and learning and encouraging civil discourse with your peers. That's not what's happening at Jones College.”
This wasn’t Brown’s first experience having his First Amendment rights threatened at Jones College. In February, Brown and a friend set up a “free speech ball,” an inflatable beach ball on which students could write messages of their choice while YAL representatives talked to them about the importance of free speech. An administrator informed them that they were not permitted on campus since they didn’t have Jones College’s explicit approval.
Brown was deflated, and so was his beach ball.
“Students shouldn’t have to seek permission — then wait three or more days — before they can exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation. “If a ball threatens the administration so much that they call campus police, no speech is safe at Jones College.”
FIRE wrote to Jones College President Jesse Smith on May 16, offering assistance with bringing the college’s unconstitutional policies into compliance with the First Amendment. Smith failed to respond.
“Jones College had a chance to do the right thing,” said Tuthill Beck-Coon. “Instead, its leaders ignored their responsibility to uphold the First Amendment. Now the college has to answer for its censorship in federal court.”
Public colleges like Jones College may put in place reasonable restrictions on student expression, but they cannot maintain blanket restrictions on all student speech. Brown’s lawsuit calls on Jones College to immediately revise its unconstitutional speech policies so the thousands of students attending the college can reclaim their First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit was filed in partnership with Cody W. Gibson of Gibson & Mullennix, PLLC in Jackson, Mississippi, who is co-counsel with FIRE in the case.
The lawsuit is part of FIRE’s Million Voices Campaign, which aims to free the voices of one million students by striking down unconstitutional speech codes nationwide. To date, these efforts have successfully helped over 350,000 students.
Brown has since left Jones College. Last week he began classes at the University of Southern Mississippi — a school that holds FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating for free speech. In fact, Jones College is bucking a trend happening statewide: All over Mississippi, colleges are standing up for student speech rights. In 2019 alone, three state universities in Mississippi scrapped their unconstitutional speech policies to be among the 51 institutions nationwide earning FIRE’s highest rating. Today, Mississippi is second to only North Carolina for states with the most green light colleges.
If you are a student who has been censored on campus, FIRE and its Legal Network partners stand ready to protect your First Amendment rights in court. Students interested in submitting their case to FIRE’s Million Voices Campaign may do so through FIRE’s case submission form.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org