Defending the Student Punished for Distributing Copies of the Constitution

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This week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed its first lawsuit in its national Million Voices Campaign. Under this new campaign, FIRE, known for its tireless efforts to monitor free speech on campus, is partnering with lawyers across the country to fight for college students’ First Amendment rights.

Speech censorship has become all too familiar on university campuses throughout the United States. We have become used to hearing about conservative speakers invited to speak at colleges and then disinvited after student and professor activists catch wind of it, or of conservative student groups being harassed or shut down. Worse yet, protests have even turned to violence, as was the case earlier this month when Charles Murray visited Middlebury College.

But FIRE’s first lawsuit is supremely appropriate to serve as the maiden voyage in the Million Voices Campaign because of the kind of speech in which the student in question was attempting to engage.

Kevin Shaw was studying at Los Angeles Pierce College when he tried to do something fairly commonplace. He stood on a walkway and prepared to hand out Spanish language versions of the United States Constitution.

Before he could begin, he was informed by a Pierce College administrator that he was only allowed to distribute materials in the campus’ free speech zone. Not only that, but he would first have to apply for a permit before exercising that right.

The irony here is rich. In trying to spread knowledge about our constitutional rights—including free speech—a student at a public college was informed that those rights were only exercisable in a 616-square-foot area.

Los Angeles Pierce College is one of nine community colleges in the L.A. Community College District. Not only does the LACCD approve of these restrictions—they require them. Every community college in their district is told that they must provide a free speech zone on campus, the implication being that other places on campus are not suitable for such speech.

This is the definition of repressing freedom of expression and discourse and the free exploration of ideas. It is reprehensible that it is occurring at a place of higher education. But sadly, Pierce College is not alone. These kinds of free speech zones exist on campuses around the country.

FIRE plays a crucial role in keeping our public universities in check when it comes to free speech. Bravo to FIRE and to Mr. Shaw for pushing back against a pervasive campus culture in which free speech is not a constitutional right and not all speech is created equal.

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