One student’s lawsuit against a community college system has upheld the First Amendment rights of 150,000 others, eliminating campus “free speech zones.”
The Foundation for Individual Liberties in Education, or FIRE, said the trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District have agreed to open the main areas of Los Angeles Pierce College to student expression.
It previously was restricted to tiny “free speech zones” in isolated areas of campus.
The decision comes in the settlement of a lawsuit by student Kevin Shaw, who was awarded $225,000 in attorney’s fees.
FIRE said the board “also agreed to revoke an unconstitutional, district-wide policy that declared all property on its nine campuses to be ‘non-public forums’ and therefore subject to severe speech restrictions.”
About 150,000 students attend classes at LACCD.
“More than two years ago, administrators wrongly told Kevin he was not allowed to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution in the center of his public college campus,” explained FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “He’s been standing up for his First Amendment rights every day since, and in the process has vindicated the rights of every student in the district.”
The dispute began when Shaw distributed Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus to recruit students for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter.
A college administrator ordered Shaw to restrict his distribution to a 616-square-foot area on campus. It amounted to a classroom-size parcel hidden amid 18 million square feet of campus property.
“Shaw was also told that he must fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone – requiring him to get a permission slip to exercise his First Amendment rights. He was informed that he would be asked to leave his own campus if he refused to comply,” FIRE said.
Shaw said the experience, “though it was not without its difficulties,” has left him “optimistic about the guiding principles of my country.”
“Folks of all political dispositions rallied behind this case to declare in no uncertain terms: freedom of speech is essential to the educational process,” he said, according to FIRE.
Last year, a federal district court refused the district’s demand to dismiss the case.
The court then ruled the open spaces of public colleges such as Pierce are traditional public forums for student speech regardless of college regulations to the contrary.
The Trump administration, through the Department of Justice, also endorsed Shaw’s argument.
WND reported Judge Otis Wright II of the U.S. District Court in California took Shaw’s side in the case.
The Justice Department’s brief said: “Under the First Amendment, there is a heavy presumption against the validity of prior restraints. The First Amendment prohibits ‘regulations that confer unbridled discretion on a permitting or licensing official.'”
The DOJ argued college rules “must not foreclose the speakers’ ability to reach their intended audience.”
“Mr. Shaw is a student at Pierce College and is seeking to engage in speech in outdoor areas and sidewalks – not classrooms or other spaces that are more appropriately characterized as non-public fora,” the Justice Department brief stated. “These outdoor areas and sidewalks almost certainly constitute designated public fora as to Mr. Shaw. … Mr. Shaw has sufficiently pleaded a claim that the college’s limitations on speech outside the Free Speech Zone violate the First Amendment.”