In an era when freedom seems to be a symbol of a bygone age, it’s nice to know there are still freedom fighters out there. A California man is suing his community college district for barring him from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus.
Kevin Shaw is a 27-year-old student at Pierce College, part of the Los Angeles Community College District. He runs the campus chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty. On November 2, in the final days before last year’s presidential election, Shaw went on a recruiting drive. He and two other students stationed themselves in the main quad and handed out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution.
He was then approached by the administration who told him that students could not distribute literature outside the “Free Speech Zone.” The zone is a small area of 616 square feet, about the size of three parking spaces. The college campus, in comparison, sprawls over 426 acres. Not only that, but in order to use the zone, students also had to apply for a permit ahead of time. Shaw was told if he would not comply with the order, he had to leave the campus.
“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,” Shaw said. “I had no idea I would be called upon to defend those very ideals against Pierce’s unconstitutional campus policies.”
Many schools have free speech zones, and the Los Angeles Daily writes that it harkens back to safety issues during the Vietnam War time period. But now a lot of schools have revised their codes. Others lag behind. LACCD, in particular, stipulates that each college president is to designate a free speech area on their campus. Other than that, colleges are nonpublic forums and demonstration is prohibited.
“There’s a lot of student’s affected by the rule,” Shaw told the Los Angeles Daily. “It’s not just me.”
Shaw also claims that the rule is arbitrarily enforced and has been a source of frustration for many students. His lawsuit against the 150,000 student Los Angeles Community College District aims to get the free speech zone policy lifted.
“I’d like to see students coming here after me not having to worry about being silenced,” he told the Los Angeles Daily.
The lawsuit was filed with the assistance of the Philadelphia based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE ). They specialize in representing cases regarding free speech and religious liberty on college campuses. The case is the first in their Million Voices campaign, dedicated to freeing up 1 million student voices by overturning unconstitutional limits to free speech all over the country. The LACCD case would be a huge win for them, as it is the largest community college district in the United States.
“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 attorney Arthur Willner, co-counsel on the lawsuit. “This does a disservice to the student body, as well as being contrary to long-established law.”
This isn’t the first case of this nature. In 2014, college student Robert Van Tuinen faced a similar incident when he tried to hand out the Constitution at Modesto Junior College. He was only out for a few minutes when campus police approached him.
“There are rules,” the police officer said.
After a brief exchange, the police officer showed him to an administrative office, where a staffer pulled out a binder full of the rules governing speech on campus. Van Tuinen was directed to a small “cement area,” where two people were already passing out their own literature. Van Tuinen sued the school and won. The school changed its free speech regulations and the student was awarded a $50,000 settlement.
LACCD only gave a brief comment on the situation, spokesman Yusef Robb stated, ““The Los Angeles Community College District firmly stands behind every student’s right to free expression. We have no further comment on the lawsuit at this time.”
But a recent video on the free speech zone highlights student’s opinions on the zone. Many agreed with the policy. Several students commented that they didn’t want to be harassed and that it’s a place of learning not propagandizing.
“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,” a FIRE spokesman said in a statement.
Under the counsel of FIRE, Shaw is trying not to make things worse.
“It’s such a delicate situation, I don’t want to provoke anything,” he said. “Hopefully, within the month, I’d like to be out there again handing out the Constitution and talking to students again.”
Shaw’s lawsuit against the school was filed with a federal court on Tuesday.