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Dawn Bowery/FIRE

Student sues Los Angeles Community College District to free over 150,000 students from unconstitutional ‘free speech zones’

By March 28, 2017

  • Student Kevin Shaw was told he could not hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution outside Pierce College’s tiny “free speech zone,” which comprises just .003 percent of campus.
  • Pierce College is part of the 150,000-student Los Angeles Community College District, which maintains unconstitutional policies restricting campus speech.
  • The lawsuit is the first in FIRE’s new “Million Voices” litigation campaign.

LOS ANGELES, March 28, 2017—The U.S. Constitution prohibits public colleges from quarantining free speech, but that’s exactly what the 150,000 students of the Los Angeles Community College District endure when they wish to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Today, Los Angeles Pierce College student Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit challenging Pierce College and LACCD policies that restrict student free speech rights to tiny “free speech zones.” Pierce College is one of nine schools in the LACCD, which serves over 150,000 students and is the largest community college district in the United States.

Shaw’s lawsuit is the first of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s new Million Voices Campaign, which aims to free the voices of 1 million students by striking down unconstitutional speech codes across the country.

“Students like Kevin go to college to learn and grow in conversation with their peers, but a free speech quarantine like Pierce’s threatens to punish students who speak their minds in the wrong place,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “The law is clear: Public colleges like Pierce can’t force students into tiny slices of campus to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

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In November 2016, Shaw attempted to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and recruit new members for his student group, Young Americans for Liberty, along the main public walkway through the heart of Pierce College. As he prepared to distribute copies of the Constitution, he was approached by a Pierce administrator who told him that he could not distribute literature outside the campus free speech zone, a tiny area on campus measuring approximately 616 square feet and comprising about .003 percent of the total area of Pierce College’s 426-acre campus.

For perspective, if Pierce College were the size of a tennis court, the area where students are allowed to exercise their constitutional rights would be smaller than a standard iPhone.

Shaw was also told he must fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone. Shaw was informed that he would be asked to leave campus if he refused to comply.

“When I attempted to hand out copies of the Constitution that day, my only intention was to get students thinking about our founding principles and to inspire discussion of liberty and free speech,” said Shaw. “I had no idea I would be called upon to defend those very ideals against Pierce’s unconstitutional campus policies. This fight is about a student’s right to engage in free thinking and debate while attending college in America.”

Today’s lawsuit was filed in partnership with Arthur Willner, a partner at Leader & Berkon LLP, who is co-counsel with FIRE in the case. In addition to challenging Pierce College’s unconstitutional free speech zone and permit requirement, the lawsuit also challenges an LACCD policy that requires the president of each LACCD college to designate at least one free speech zone on their campus.

“At the very moment when colleges and universities should be encouraging open debate and the active exchange of ideas, Pierce College instead sends the message to its students that free speech is suspect and should be ever more tightly controlled,” said Willner. “This does a disservice to the student body, as well as being contrary to long-established law.”

If you are a student who has been censored on campus, FIRE and its Legal Network partners stand ready to protect your First Amendment rights in court. Students interested in submitting their case to FIRE’s Million Voices Campaign can do so through FIRE’s online case submission form. Attorneys interested in joining FIRE’s Legal Network can apply on FIRE’s website.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.

CONTACT:
Nico Perrino, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

Cases: Los Angeles Pierce College – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project