In a big win for free-speech rights on college campuses, Modesto Junior College in California settled a lawsuit with a student who was barred from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.
Last September, Robert van Tuinen was told by a campus police officer and a college administrator that he could not pass out Constitutions in a public space without permission from the college or outside of the designated “free-speech zone.”
The orange area is the college’s previous “free-speech zone,” the red is where van Tuinen passed out Constitutions.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) represented van Tuinen, who won $50,000 in damages in the suit settled on Monday. Modesto Junior College has also agreed to change its policies and allow free speech in open areas throughout the campus.
FIRE wrote a complaint to the college and asked the college to “reject its shockingly unconstitutional censorship” and rescind its current policies. After receiving no response, FIRE filed a lawsuit on van Tuinen’s behalf on October 10. On December 17, the junior college suspended its policies that limited free speech while working toward a settlement.
“FIRE is very pleased that Robert van Tuinen and Modesto Junior College have reached this settlement — and that Modesto Junior College students will now be able to exercise their First Amendment rights across campus,” FIRE president Greg Lukianoff said.
The settlement abolishes the procedure necessitating administrative permission for free-speech activities, allows free expression in all “areas generally available to students and the community,” and prohibits the college from reinstituting its old policies.
“I am thrilled with this outcome and I am grateful to my attorneys and FIRE for securing this agreement,” van Tuinen said. “Now the Modesto Junior College community and I will be able to engage in free discussion on campus. I encourage students at other schools with restrictive free speech policies to stand up for their rights.”
According to FIRE’s metrics, 59 percent of colleges nationwide have policies that greatly infringe upon First Amendment rights. In a few of the more egregious instances, students at various universities are barred from actions that “humiliate or demean a person” or “undermine their . . . self esteem.” At Kenyon College in Ohio, for example, the school can discipline any student for conduct that “offends the sensibilities of others.”
While the number of colleges that infringe upon free speech enough to earn a “red light” rating from FIRE, has decreased over the past few years, Lukianoff says that there is still too much restriction. “Because 59 percent of colleges nationwide maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict student speech,” he says. “there’s much more work to be done.”
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.