Two Hawaii college students are taking legal action against the state’s university system after administrators prevented them from distributing pocket-Constitution booklets on campus.
The incident took place at an outdoor campus event in January at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, where students were handing out material were handing out material about their organizations, according to the plaintiffs, Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone. An administrator told Burch and Vizzone, both members of the university’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter, that they were not allowed to hand out the Constitutions.
Later, the university would tell the students that they were free to hand out the Constitutions in the designated “free-speech zone,” which the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education describes as “a sloping, one-third acres area on the edge of campus” that makes up about one quarter of one percent of the campus’s total land.
“This isn’t really the ’60s anymore,” a separate administrator told the students at the time. “People can’t really protest like that anymore.”
According to the lawsuit, the university justified its reasoning by telling Burch and Vizzone that students on campus “can feel intimidated” by people approaching them and won’t be able to decline the material.
Burch and Vizzone’s suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii, asserts that the university violated their First Amendment rights by preventing them from handing out the literature and asserts that the free-speech zone is unconstitutional.
The Hawaii case is reminiscent of a similar lawsuit filed by a student against Modesto Junior College in California, in which the college eventually settled with student Robert van Tuinen after he sued for the university for telling him to stop distributing the Constitution on campus. The college also had to eliminate its free-speech zones and allow demonstrations across campus.