College administrators often act as if they are the rulers of little duchies where they can act any way they please in controlling their subjects. A recent case at Kellogg Community College (KCC) in Battle Creek, MI shows that mindset.
Last September, a group of students affiliated with Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) were standing on a sidewalk on campus. They didn’t obstruct anyone, but offered copies of the U.S. Constitution to passers by. They also sought to engage with them by talking about YAL and the importance of our constitutional freedoms.
Could anything be more American?
Sadly, the administration at KCC regarded their conduct as disturbing the order they wanted on “their” campus. School officials descended upon the five students and instructed them to stop immediately and leave. Why? Because, one administrator explained, engaging students in conversation on their way to educational places violates the school’s Solicitation Policy. Somehow, asking if they’d like a copy of the Constitution and if they like freedom is an “obstruction to their education.”
Then, making the encounter even more ridiculous, the officials added that “students from rural farm areas might not feel that they have the choice to ignore the questions.”
Aren’t academic administrators supposed to know that students should never be stereotyped based on characteristics such as family background? This official seems to believe that students from rural farm areas are rubes who don’t know they can say “no.”
Rather than bowing to authority, the students declined to stop and leave, replying that they were acting within their rights under the very document they were handing out. At that bit of defiance, the official ordered that campus police arrest the students for trespass.
You can read more about this absurd case in this release by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is handling the students’ suit against KCC for violating their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
Much as college officials might wish they were aristocrats who get to make up their own rules, the fact is that public colleges and universities are covered by the First Amendment. Therefore, they must respect the constitutional rights of students and everyone else on campus. Arresting people for peacefully handing out copies of the Constitution and asking passers by if they are interested in the ideas it stands for is completely at odds with the First Amendment.
It’s not as if this is brand new legal terrain. For decades, groups like FIRE, ADF, and others have been winning cases against public college administrators who think they are entitled to stifle free speech because they don’t like certain ideas or just because they want their schools to be placid places devoid of confrontation. That is not compatible with the First Amendment.
ADF attorney Casey Mattox gets at the heart of the matter, stating, “Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, commissioners, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone that KCC and many other colleges are communicating to a generation of students that the Constitution doesn’t matter.”
You can read the complaint in full here.
Plaintiffs are seeking declaratory judgment from the court that KCC’s policies infringe upon the First Amendment rights of students, an injunction against any further enforcement of those policies, compensatory damages personally against the defendant school administrators, and reasonable attorneys’ fees and legal costs assessed against the school.
A ringing endorsement of free speech on campus from the judge would be great, but better still would be such an endorsement coupled with damages and costs that will make other officials think twice before acting like petty tyrants.