Last Tuesday, on Constitution Day, student Robert Van Tuinen tried to hand out copies of the Constitution on the campus of Modesto Junior College in California. He discovered, however, that the document’s First Amendment does not apply at his school.
First, Van Tuinen was told by a campus police officer that he wasn’t following the rules for passing out literature. When Van Tuinen questioned the officer about his First Amendment rights, he was referred to college administrator Christine Serrano.
She told Van Tuinen he could only pass out his literature in the designated free speech area, a tiny spot in front of the student center. Serrano also said Van Tuinen would have to present his student ID, fill out an application and wait for the next available time slot
“Two people are on campus right now,” Serrano said, “so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.”
Granted, Van Tuinen set out to test the free speech zones, and he made sure his confrontations with the security officer and the administrator were caught on video. However, it does illustrate the point effectively: Modesto Community College, and schools with similar “free speech zones,” are violating the First Amendment.
Colleges and universities try to get around the Constitutional protection by arguing they have the right to impose content-neutral “time, place and manner” restrictions. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, the justices ruled that New York City officials had the power to issue reasonable guidelines for the sound amplification of a concert in a public park.
The court made clear, however, that any restriction must be minimally intrusive upon the freedom of expression. Requiring a college student to fill out paperwork and wait days or even weeks to pass out pamphlets in a designated zone on campus clearly violates the court’s standard.
West Virginia University abandoned its free speech zones in 2002 after student complaints. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) criticized Marshall University in 2011 for what it said was a policy that “prohibits a staggering amount of constitutionally protected speech.”
Marshall Chief of Staff Matt Turner told me, “We have not had an area designated as a free speech zone and don’t have a desire to do it.” Turner added that Marshall is finalizing a change in the language of the student handbook that apparently raised the ire of FIRE.
FIRE reports that more than 60 percent of college and university campuses have policies that violate the free speech rights of their students. How absurd. Campuses should be a marketplace of ideas, in and out of the classroom.
There are time-tested limitations on speech, such as intent to incite unlawful conduct, but wise jurists have traditionally deferred to the First Amendment’s protection of speakers and writers, particularly those with unpopular ideas.
Perhaps someone in the Modesto Community College history department can provide the school’s administration with a much-needed lesson so that next Constitution Day, the First Amendment can be celebrated rather than ignored.