The Eternally Radical Idea

The Eternally Radical Idea

On Constitution Day, California College Student Ordered to Stop Handing out Constitutions

September 19, 2013

This article appeared in The Huffington Post.

Robert Van Tuinen, a student at Modesto Junior College in California, had a theory. He believed that the policies at his college limiting protests and expression were so restrictive that the college would try to shut him down even if he tried to hand out copies of the United States Constitution on September 17—Constitution Day.

Sadly, he was correct.

You can check out the video for yourself:

Not 10 minutes after Van Tuinen began handing out copies of the Constitution, a campus police officer arrived to stop him. Van Tuinen was informed that anytime someone wants to pass out anything on campus, it must first be registered and approved by the Student Development office.

As my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), writes in a press release today:

Upon arriving at that office, Van Tuinen talks with administrator Christine Serrano, who tells him that because of “a time, place, and manner,” he can only pass out literature inside the “free speech area,” which she informs him is “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.” She asks him to fill out an application and asks to photocopy his student ID. Hauling out a binder, Serrano says that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.” Van Tuinen protests that he wants to pass out the Constitution on Constitution Day, at which point Serrano dismissively tells him “you really don’t need to keep going on.”

Ultimately, Serrano, after a phone call to an unnamed person in which she says that Van Tuinen “just wants to question the authority of why can’t he hand out constitutional-type of papers,” tells him he will have to make an appointment with Vice President of Student Services Brenda Thames, so that she can further explain to him “what the time, place, and manner is.”

Van Tuinen’s difficulty in trying to engage in basic expressive activities protected by the First Amendment on campus is no isolated incident. Just last week I published a list of 11 student victories over absurd, tiny, and out-of-the-way “free speech zones” on campus and FIRE released a video about one of those victories and the general problem with free speech zones on and off campus:

Yes, it is true that campuses can impose what are known as “reasonable time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech. But under the law, these need to be reasonable, tied to the pedagogical interest of the college, narrowly tailored, and leave open ample avenues to engage in free speech. Modesto’s all-too-typical behavior here does not pass this test or conform with basic common sense. It almost seems like something Mark Twain would say; “This college is so daffy, I bet you they wouldn’t even let you pass out constitutions on Constitution day.” And amazingly, he would win that bet.