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Virginia Community College System Settles Free Speech Lawsuit for $25,000

Almost three months after Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) student Christian Parks filed a lawsuit alleging that the college used a Virginia Community College System (VCCS) policy to violate his constitutional right to freedom of speech, the case is drawing to an end with a result that promises to benefit students across the commonwealth.

As I wrote on The Torch back in March, Parks was twice told to stop preaching on campus because a VCCS policy allowed only recognized student groups to demonstrate on campus, and even then only with four days’ advance notice and in certain locations on campus. As a result of the subsequent lawsuit, VCCS has agreed to scrap that policy in favor of a declaration that outdoor areas on campus are “venues for free expression.” Under First Amendment law, public colleges may implement reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions if they are narrowly tailored and content-neutral.

This result isn’t wholly surprising in light of Virginia’s statutory ban on “free speech zones,” signed into law in April. Still, it’s good that VCCS has admitted its error—FIRE has certainly seen colleges continue to fight losing battles before. Reporting on the case from The Virginian-Pilot suggests that the commonwealth might have planned this outcome anyway:

Attorney General Mark Herring's office elected not to defend the policy in court, and it was suspended in April.

"Once the suit was filed, our office got all parties together to help facilitate a solution prior to extensive litigation," said Michael Kelly, a Herring spokesman.

Either way, the outcome here is great news for students wishing to express themselves on community college campuses throughout Virginia. But the commonwealth didn’t avoid costs altogether—VCCS will be paying $24,999 in attorneys’ fees to Parks’ counsel, attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, along with $1 in nominal damages.

FIRE hopes public colleges and universities across the country get the message that they should take steps now to protect free speech rights on campus, both for the sake of the campus community and to protect their own wallets. As always, FIRE stands ready to help any institutions that would like to craft new, speech-protective policies.

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