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Students Arrested for Handing Out Constitutions File First Amendment Lawsuit Against College

The Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter at Kellogg Community College has filed a federal lawsuit against KCC after three students were arrested while handing out copies of the Constitution on campus last September. The suit was filed Wednesday by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents the students.

According to the complaint, while distributing copies of the Constitution and telling students about their YAL chapter, students Brandon Withers, Michelle Gregoire, and three other YAL supporters were approached by campus security and administrators. The students were informed that they were violating the college’s “solicitation policy” because they had not received approval from the college to speak with their fellow students. They were also told they needed to limit their activity to a pre-reserved table inside the student center. Three of the students were then arrested and charged with trespass because they declined to leave campus.

ADF obtained a copy of a video showing the students declining campus security orders to leave campus and being placed under arrest:

The three YAL members were transported to the local county jail, where they stayed for approximately seven hours before being released after posting bail. The local prosecutor eventually dropped all charges against the students.

The students’ lawsuit alleges that KCC’s policies amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint on the YAL students’ ability to exercise core First Amendment expression. KCC’s solicitation policy requires that all students first seek approval and receive permission from campus administrators before engaging in any discussion with other students on campus. Per the students’ complaint, the policy also “grants KCC officials unbridled discretion to restrict the content and viewpoint of student speech if it does not ‘support the mission of [KCC] or the mission of a recognized college entity or activity.’” Ultimately, the lawsuit alleges, the students’ arrest was an unconstitutional enforcement of an unconstitutional policy.

American courts have historically been incredibly wary of prior restraint, whereby government censors speech before it occurs. As former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Berger once noted, “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights” because “[a] prior restraint ... has an immediate and irreversible sanction. If it can be said that a threat of criminal or civil sanctions after publication ‘chills’ speech, prior restraint ‘freezes’ it at least for the time.”

The lawsuit also alleges that KCC maintains an unwritten policy of restricting the expressive activities of students and student organizations on campus to informational tables that must be reserved inside the student center, prohibiting any speech or expression in outdoor areas of campus. Plaintiffs assert that this unwritten rule, which they dub the “Speech Zone Policy,” is an unconstitutional “time, place, and manner” restriction on students’ First Amendment rights.

This case will be interesting to watch. FIRE will keep readers updated on major developments.

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