PITTSBURGH, June 2, 2009—A student who wants to form a gun-rights group will still be subject to unconstitutional censorship, the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) announced yesterday. Christine Brashier, who wants to form a chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), was told through a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) yesterday that she will not be punished for her efforts to organize the group, as college officials had threatened in an earlier meeting, but only if she follows CCAC's unconstitutional policies. She must have all of her pamphlets approved before distribution and will not be allowed to use the name of CCAC in any way during her effort to start a group at the college.
"CCAC's response was a transparent attempt to defend the indefensible," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "The college's justifications for its censorship of Christine Brashier are not only unconstitutional, they are absurd."
In April, Brashier created pamphlets to distribute to her classmates encouraging them to join her in forming a chapter of the SCCC national organization at CCAC. Her pamphlets stated that the group "supports the legalization of concealed carry by licensed individuals on college campuses." She personally distributed copies of the pamphlets, which identified her as a "Campus Leader" of the effort to start the chapter.
Brashier was quickly summoned to a meeting with administrators, who told her that passing out her non-commercial pamphlets was prohibited as "solicitation." Furthermore, they insisted that the college pre-approve any pamphlets, that pamphlets like hers would not be approved, and that Brashier destroy all copies of her pamphlet. At one point during the meeting, Dean Yvonne Burns reportedly said, "You may want to discuss this topic but the college does not, and you cannot make us." Brashier was warned that any further efforts would be considered "academic misconduct."
FIRE wrote CCAC President Alex Johnson on April 29 about these violations of Brashier's First Amendment speech and association rights, pointing out that her free speech in no way constituted solicitation, that CCAC may not condition approval of literature on its viewpoint or content, and that if CCAC recognizes student organizations at all, it must recognize an organization that supports concealed carry on campus.
FIRE took Brashier's case public last week, generating widespread news coverage. As a result, Allegheny County Solicitor Mike Adams finally replied to FIRE Monday on CCAC's behalf. Rather than affirming Brashier's expressive rights, however, Adams tried to justify CCAC's unconstitutional actions after the fact. While Adams assured FIRE that Brashier did not face any disciplinary action and that she did have the right to try to form a SCCC group—reversing the message Brashier received from Dean Burns—he ignored most of the alarming statements by the CCAC administrators and attempted to defend CCAC's unconstitutional censorship.
Most outrageously, Adams sought to defend CCAC's policy of demanding prior review and prior restraint of handbills and pamphlets. Adams attempted to justify this unconstitutional policy by arguing that Brashier's use of the CCAC name and her self-identification as the "Campus Leader" of the effort to organize the gun-rights group might lead a reasonable person to erroneously assume that the group and its message were endorsed by CCAC.
"The Supreme Court has determined that prior restraint is rarely justified, even for national security reasons," said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. "For Allegheny County to argue in favor of a government veto over privately-produced handbills makes a mockery of the First Amendment. Under this reasoning, Thomas Paine should have sought the British government's permission to distribute his pamphlet Common Sense."
Also troubling is CCAC's argument that simply using the name of CCAC in a handbill promoting the formation of a group on that campus implied CCAC's endorsement of the group and its message. "CCAC has officially recognized chapters of the College Democrats and the Newman Club. Does that mean CCAC officially endorses Democratic politics and Catholicism? Obviously not. Such a conclusion is patently unreasonable—as is CCAC's weak attempt to spin away the violation of a student's First Amendment rights," Shibley said.
"CCAC students, as well as every citizen of Allegheny County, should feel very disappointed by the county's apparent disregard of fundamental rights. FIRE will continue to pursue this matter until the First Amendment is restored to CCAC's campus," Lukianoff said.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Tell CCAC to stop fighting the Constitution and restore the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to its students. Write a letter to CCAC here.
Robert Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Johnson, President, Community College of Allegheny County: 412-237-4413; email@example.com
Mike Adams, Allegheny County Solicitor: 412-653-9540; firstname.lastname@example.org