- Student was told he could not hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution outside his college’s tiny “free speech zone”
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13, 2018 — The largest community college district in the country has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed last year after an administrator told a student his First Amendment rights were restricted to a tiny “free speech zone.”
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees agreed to open the main areas of Los Angeles Pierce College to student expression. The board also agreed to revoke an unconstitutional, district-wide policy that declared all property on its nine campuses to be “non-public forums” and therefore subject to severe speech restrictions. Roughly 150,000 students attend classes at LACCD.
Student Kevin Shaw’s lawsuit was the first in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Million Voices Campaign, which aims to free the voices of one million students by striking down unconstitutional speech codes across the country. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to pay $225,000 in attorneys’ fees.
“More than two years ago, administrators wrongly told Kevin he was not allowed to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution in the center of his public college campus,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “He’s been standing up for his First Amendment rights every day since, and in the process has vindicated the rights of every student in the district.”
In November 2016, Shaw attempted to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and recruit members for a new chapter of the student organization Young Americans for Liberty along the main campus thoroughfare at Pierce College. He was approached by an administrator who told him that he could not distribute literature outside the free speech zone, a tiny, 616-square foot area comprising about .003 percent of the total area of the college’s 426-acre campus.
Shaw was also told that he must fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone — requiring him to get a permission slip to exercise his First Amendment rights. He was informed that he would be asked to leave his own campus if he refused to comply.
“Though it was not without its difficulties, this experience has left me optimistic about the guiding principles of my country,” said Shaw. “Folks of all political dispositions rallied behind this case to declare in no uncertain terms: freedom of speech is essential to the educational process.”
Represented by attorneys from FIRE and Leader Berkon Colao & Silverstein LLP, Shaw filed suit in March 2017, challenging Pierce’s free speech zone policies as well as the district-wide policy that mandated the use of a free speech zone and placed all other campus property off-limits to free expression. In January, a federal district court denied the district and Pierce College administrators’ motion to dismiss Shaw’s lawsuit. In its order, the court found that the open spaces of public colleges like Pierce are traditional public forums for student speech regardless of college regulations to the contrary. Additionally, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in Shaw’s case, arguing that Shaw successfully alleged First Amendment violations.
“Hopefully, this settlement will serve as a reminder to both students and their colleges that the free and open exchange of ideas on campus is a precious commodity to be celebrated rather than feared or restricted,” said Arthur Willner, a partner at Leader Berkon Colao & Silverstein and co-counsel with FIRE in the case.
With these policy reforms at the district and Pierce College, the Million Voices Campaign will have freed the voices of over 250,000 students since its launch in 2017.
Nationwide, 49 top colleges in FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report still maintain restrictive free speech zones.
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 and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.