On Tuesday, 27-year-old Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit against Pierce College in Los Angeles, Calif., after he says his First Amendment right to free speech was violated by the campus’ use of a “free speech area.”
Shaw was prevented from handing out pocket-sized U.S. Constitutions in November on behalf of his student group, Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), for which he currently serves as a chapter president. The community college argued that he was both outside of the designated “free speech area” and did not have a permit to use the zone.
According to Pierce College’s online map, the “free speech area” is made up of a common space only a fraction of the size of the surrounding buildings. It has been described as “roughly the size of three parking spaces.”
Shaw’s lawsuit, which is on its way to a federal court in California, was filed with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE is a nonprofit which offers legal assistance to students and educators in matters regarding the “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.”
FIRE revealed in a press release that Shaw’s case is the first of their Million Voices Campaign, dedicated to freeing “the voices of 1 million students by striking down unconstitutional speech codes across the country.” Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon explains:
Students like Kevin go to college to learn and grow in conversation with their peers, but a free speech quarantine like Pierce’s threatens to punish students who speak their minds in the wrong place. The law is clear: Public colleges like Pierce can’t force students into tiny slices of campus to exercise their First Amendment rights.
YAL Director of Free Speech Alexander Staudt shares the same sentiment, quickly noting in a statement to Rare that the college’s policy “limits students’ free speech rights to an abysmal .003 percent of the total area of Pierce College’s campus.” Staudt also argued that the requirement of a permit unduly gives campus administration “the ability to restrict speech before students even open their mouths.”
“The idea of a free speech zone also violates our First Amendment rights as it limits where, and when, students are allowed to speak freely,” he went on to say.
Staudt spoke of YAL’s Fight for Free Speech activism campaign, which encourages members like Shaw to challenge the “free speech areas” on campus. He stated that similar to FIRE, YAL hopes to see both their campaign as well as Shaw’s case result in the expansion of free speech opportunities on college campus:
Young Americans for Liberty hopes to see these policies reformed, and to ensure the speech right of the nearly 150,000 students that are enrolled in the Los Angeles County Community College District. YAL’s national Fight for Free Speech campaign is aimed at abolishing the kind of campus speech restrictions like the ones found at Pierce College. This incident illustrates the important free speech activism done by YAL’s grassroots network.
Though presented as a way to avoid disruption, “free speech areas” are increasingly facing criticism across the country. Beyond the common argument from free speech advocates that the zones are in violation of the First Amendment, several college students have found themselves to be victims of aggressive implementation of such policies.
Several months ago, YAL members at the Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich., were arrested for handing out pocket-sized U.S. Constitutions on their campus outside of a designated “free speech area.” The chapter filed a lawsuit against their campus in January with the assistance of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group.