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Student wins first round in free speech fight

Federal judge rejects community college bid to dismiss challenge to campus speech restrictions.

A Southern California community college student won the first round in his fight against Pierce College when a federal court ruled the school’s free speech policy violated students’ constitutional rights.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California sided with Kevin Shaw and rejected the school’s bid to have the suit dismissed. Shaw challenged the school after administrators told him in March he could not hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution unless he agreed to stand in a specified “free speech zone” and get prior approval for his activity.

The school’s lawyers argued administrators had to limit speech to a specific area to avoid campus disruptions. Judge Otis D. Wright didn’t dispute the need to maintain order.

“However, defendants’ literally ‘narrow’ free speech area, comprising 616 square feet on a campus spanning hundreds of acres, does not achieve defendants’ stated goals without unnecessarily impeding students’ First Amendment rights,” he wrote.

Wright noted all outdoor open areas on campus qualified as public forums for free speech. While that’s a concept enshrined in the Constitution, he noted, it should carry extra weight on a college campus: “This characterization makes sense because, after all, what is a university’s purpose but to expose students to new ideas and spark dialogue?”

Like many other community colleges and universities, Pierce College and the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) have policies restricting where students can gather for protests, hand out literature advocating for a cause, or talk to their fellow students about important issues. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is helping to represent Shaw, notes that more than 450 higher education institutions have similar speech codes. Although courts almost always side with students or other members of the public who challenge the policies, no case has yet prompted a widespread reversal. Last year’s violent protests at schools across the country didn’t help free speech advocates who say restrictive policies are both unconstitutional and unnecessary.

“The court’s ruling sends an important message to colleges nationwide that still restrict student speech to free speech zones,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation. “The campus is a college student’s public square. It’s their space to be engaged citizens. The public recognizes this. So do courts across the country. Now it’s time for LACCD to follow suit.”

Shaw’s case is one of several the U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on, filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the student’s right to free speech. Although Shaw scored an initial win in the case, he must still press for a ruling on the merits of his claim unless Pierce College agrees to settle.

— by Leigh Jones

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