A student is suing America’s biggest community college district, arguing that they violated his First Amendment rights by forbidding him from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus unless he did it in the so-called “free speech zone.”
“I was brought up under the impression that the entire country was a ‘free speech zone,’ so I find it somewhat confusing that a basic constitutional right is arbitrarily ‘issued’ to students,” said Kevin Shaw, the first-year Pierce College student who told Heat Street that administrators also made him side a “free speech permit” before he could proceed.
Restrictive “free speech zones,” which imply that open expression isn’t allowed elsewhere on campus, have become increasingly common in higher education. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whose attorneys are representing Shaw, estimated in December that one in 10 American campuses have one.
At Pierce College, the “free speech zone” is just 616 square feet, or 0.003 percent of the total campus, FIRE said.
“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 Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation, in a written statement. “The law is clear: Public colleges like Pierce can’t force students into tiny slices of campus to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
The lawsuit challenges free-speech policy not only at Pierce College but the entire Los Angeles Community College District it belongs to—a community-college system that, with 150,000 students, is the biggest in the nation.
On Wednesday evening, the Los Angeles Community College District referred Heat Street to a consultant for comment. He, in turn, said that the district “stands firmly behind every students’ right to free expression,” declining to offer further comment on the lawsuit.
Shaw’s challenge is part of FIRE’s newly launched Million Voices Campaign, a legal campaign targeting free-speech restrictions on campuses that together are home to a million students.
Shaw, who is double-majoring in political science and philosophy, said he’s excited about the changes this lawsuit could prompt.
“I hope that students who attend community college after I graduate are not similarly prevented from free expression of their political beliefs,” Shaw explained.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.