by Tal Kopan at POLITICO
A college student who was prevented by his school from passing out free copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day is suing, claiming his First Amendment free speech rights were violated.
On Sept. 17, Robert Van Tuinen was passing out copies of the Constitution in honor of Constitution Day at Modesto Junior College in California when he was asked to stop. Officials told Van Tuinen that if he wanted to pass out literature, he could only do so in a designated “free speech zone” on campus and under college policies would be required to get permission in advance.
His interactions with a campus security officer and administrator were posted in a video on YouTube that has more than 150,000 views.
Campus policies require students who want to use the zone get permission at least five days in advance, and also limit individuals’ and groups’ use of the free speech zone to eight hours per semester, according to the complaint (posted here). Van Tuinen’s filing calculates that would mean two and a half minutes per student, per semester based on the student body size if everyone wanted to make use of the zone. It also characterizes the speech zone as “miniscule.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fresno, challenges the school’s policies both in terms of how it was applied to Van Tuinen and on its face as violating students’ First Amendment free speech rights. The suit seeks injunctive relief, monetary damages and legal fees.
After the incident, Modesto Junior College President Jill Stearns issued a statement saying the school apologized to Van Tuinen and was working to clarify with campus officials that policies allow students to distribute printed material “as long as it does not disrupt the orderly operation of the college.” Stearns also said the school was reviewing its policies.
The statement also said the school “wholly” supports free speech and Constitution Day activities, and decried that discussion about the incident devolved into attacks that included staff being called “morons, idiots, whores and Nazis” and death threats.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is assisting Van Tuinen and his attorneys in the lawsuit, said that statement was inadequate, however, because school policies still conflict with Stearns’s asserted policy.
In response to the lawsuit, a statement from Stearns and Joan Smith, chancellor of Yosemite Community College District, which is named in the suit, said the school would not comment on pending litigation, but it reiterated support for freedom of speech and “thanks to those individuals willing to stand up for our Constitution and expression of free speech.” The officials also affirmed “the commitment of the college and district to civil discourse.”