Victory: Texas College Settles Free Speech Lawsuit After Telling Student That Gun Rights Sign Needs ‘Special Permission’
HOUSTON, May 4, 2016—Yesterday, the Blinn College Board of Trustees agreed to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed last year by a student who was told that she would need to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops to express herself on campus and would need “special permission” to display a gun rights sign. The settlement is the ninth consecutive victory for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) unprecedented and undefeated Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
As part of the settlement agreement, Blinn College agreed to revise the restrictive policies targeted in the lawsuit to comply with the First Amendment. Blinn also agreed to pay student Nicole Sanders $50,000 for damages and attorney’s fees.
“I am happy that Blinn College agreed to make important changes to its student speech policies that not only bring them in line with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but also make it less likely that students will have their rights trampled in the future,” said Sanders, who filed the lawsuit against Blinn last year with FIRE’s support. “I truly hope that the legacy of this case will make Blinn a place where free speech rights are both exercised by students and protected by the administration.”
In February 2015, Sanders and a fellow activist sought to recruit students on the Brenham campus of Blinn College to join Young Americans for Liberty, a student organization Sanders was forming. The two held signs for an hour and a half outside of the student center. One sign read “LOL,” with the Obama presidential campaign logo replacing the “O,” and another sign stated, “Defend Gun Rights on Campus.”
After they were done recruiting, Sanders and her friend went into the student center, where they were approached by an administrator and three armed campus police officers. The administrator told them they needed “special permission” to collect sign-ups for their club and display their signs. The official then added, “I don’t know that you can get special permission” to advocate for gun rights, explaining that she was not against guns, but “on campus, I’m not so sure.” Sanders later requested clarification from a different administrator, who sent her copies of two college policies, one of which required that student organizations request permission a month in advance and gain approval from four administrators for any on- or off-campus expressive activity.
On May 20, 2015, Sanders filed a First Amendment lawsuit with FIRE’s assistance to challenge the college’s restrictions on free expression, including its “free speech area” policy that required all expressive activity to take place in an area comprising less than 0.0007 percent of the 62-acre Brenham campus. Sanders also challenged a policy requiring that college officials approve all material distributed on campus.
The settlement agreement that was approved yesterday by the Blinn College Board of Trustees will bring the policies that Sanders challenged in line with the First Amendment throughout the Blinn College District, not just on its Brenham campus.
“Because Nicole bravely stood up for what she knew was right, the free speech rights of more than 17,000 students at Blinn College have been restored today,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko. “Students should never be confronted by armed police officers and forced through bureaucratic red tape when trying to express themselves on the issues they are passionate about, whether it’s gun rights or gay rights.”
Through its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, FIRE has coordinated 12 lawsuits against public colleges and universities that violated student and faculty First Amendment rights. With the addition of Sanders’ settlement, Stand Up For Speech has restored the free speech rights of almost 250,000 students and secured over $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.
All Stand Up For Speech student and faculty plaintiffs have been skillfully represented by attorneys Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C. Nicole Williams of Thompson & Knight in Dallas joined them as counsel on Sanders’ case.
FIRE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org