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Feds back Pierce College student who said he was barred from distributing the U.S. Constitution on campus

Feds back Pierce College student who said he was barred from distributing the U.S. Constitution on campus
The Pierce College campus. Its free speech zone is an outdoor area roughly the size of three parking spaces. (Pierce College)

The Department of Justice today filed a statement in support of a lawsuit brought by a Pierce College student against the school and the Los Angeles Community College District, alleging policies that restrict student free speech rights to tiny zones are unconstitutional and infringe on 1st Amendment rights.

The DOJ's statement of interest, filed in Los Angeles federal court, argues that plaintiff Kevin Shaw has adequately shown his 1st Amendment rights to have been violated. The DOJ alleges that the college's speech policies amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint that chilled free expression.

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An LACCD representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Shaw, 27, contends the community college in Woodland Hills violated his civil rights when he was barred from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution because he wasn't in the school's free speech zone — an outdoor area roughly the size of three parking spaces — and because he hadn't applied in advance to use it. In filing the statement of interest, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions stated that university officials and faculty "must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally."

"Last month, I promised a recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring 1st Amendment rights," Sessions said. "The Justice Department continues to do its part in defending free speech, protecting students' free expression, and enforcing federal law."

On some college campuses, students and outsiders are allowed to protest and distribute fliers only in so-called free speech zones. Pierce College is one of nine campuses in the LACCD, which is the largest community college district in the United States, serving more than 150,000 students.

According to the complaint, Shaw attempted last November to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and recruit new members for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at the school. The group describes itself as a libertarian-conservative youth organization.

Shaw says he was approached by a Pierce administrator who told him that he could not distribute literature outside the campus free speech zone, a tiny part of the 426-acre campus. If he refused to comply, Shaw was told he would be asked to leave campus, according to his court papers.

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