Much of FIRE’s advocacy on behalf of college students’ civil rights — including freedom of speech, conscience, press, and more — springs from the guidance of a single source: The United States Constitution.
But despite its status as the nation’s preeminent founding legal document, some public campus administrators still don’t fully understand the expressive rights it grants to students. In fact, some of the most cringeworthy, eyebrow-raising, and downright ironic FIRE cases to date involve students getting in major trouble for trying to pass out copies of the Constitution itself.
In honor of Constitution Day, FIRE looks back at some notable — and unconstitutional — campus moments involving the Constitution itself.
No Constitutions on Constitution Day at Modesto Junior College (2013)
Five years ago today, student Robert Van Tuinen decided to hand out copies of the Constitution to his fellow students at Modesto Junior College. It was Constitution Day, and Van Tuinen was on his public college campus, a government institution legally required to honor his right to free expression.
What could go wrong?
A lot, given that MJC officials apparently failed to read the Constitution’s very First Amendment, which provides Van Tuinen the right to free expression. Instead, the school stopped Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution near MJC’s student center and insisted he move to a small “free speech area.” The school also required him to fill out an application, provide identification, and wait at least three days for the space to become available.
The incident was caught on on video and made national news.
It also drew the attention of FIRE, which supported Van Tuinen in a successful lawsuit against MJC. The school settled with Van Tuinen in February 2014, agreeing to pay him $50,000 and to change the college’s restrictive policies.
The outrageousness of the case will forever hold a special — albeit infamous — place in FIRE history. As FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley observed the day Van Tuinen’s suit was filed: “Constitutional law can get pretty complicated at times. This is not one of those times.”
Constitution Day gets unconstitutional at Citrus College (2013)
That same Constitution Day in 2013, a student at another California college was also quarantined inside of a misleadingly named “free speech zone.”
Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, then a student at Citrus College in Glendora, chose Constitution Day to ask fellow students to sign a petition protesting National Security Agency surveillance of American citizens.
But on a day meant to celebrate the document ensuring Sinapi-Riddle’s right to free expression, a campus administrator instead threatened to remove Sinapi-Riddle from campus for petitioning outside of the college’s tiny, unconstitutional “free speech area.” The zone comprised a miniscule 1.37 percent of the public campus (on which all public spaces are required to be “free”), and mandated that all student organizations participate in a burdensome, two-week approval process to use it.
Sinapi-Riddle, then-president of the Citrus College chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, sued Citrus with FIRE’s help — and won. He challenged three unconstitutional Citrus policies, including a free speech zone policy that the school had already agreed to abolish after a 2003 lawsuit.
Confining the Constitution to a drainage ditch at University of Hawaii at Hilo (2014)
Just months after Modesto Junior College settled with Robert Van Tuinen, a student at the University of Hawaii at Hilo was prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution on her campus.
In January of 2014, student Merritt Burch, then-president of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, was participating in a student organization fair when she was stopped from handing out copies of the Constitution. About a week later, a university administrator told Burch and fellow student Anthony Vizzone that they should move a protest of NSA surveillance they were conducting to the “free speech zone” — a tiny, remote, and sometimes flooded area of campus that was, by most reputable accounts, actually a drainage ditch.
Burch and Vizzone sued the University of Hawaii System for violating the rights contained within the constitutions Burch had been handing out — and they won. By early December that same year, UH had settled the case, agreeing to pay Burch and Vizzone $50,000 in fees and damages and to make sweeping changes to university policy.
Burch gave remarks about the then-ongoing case at FIRE’s 15th anniversary dinner in October of that year.
When Burch graduated in 2016, she appended a FIRE logo to her mortarboard, and reflected on how the case shaped her college experience — and her outlook on life.
“FIRE taught me to be more confident in my actions and just being not afraid to stand up for what I believe in,” she said. “Even though students can get pushed down during their college careers and told they can’t say things or do things, the fact that you can stand up and make a difference was really important to me.”
If your public college or university prevents you from exercising your rights on Constitution Day or any other day, FIRE is here to help. Submit a case online, check out our extensive collection of resources for students and faculty members, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.