Editorial

Don’t squeeze free speech on college campuses

If you think college campuses are hotbeds of political expression, Kevin Shaw may change your mind.

Shaw, a student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, says he was handing out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus last November when he was stopped by a college administrator who told him he was allowed to exercise his 1st Amendment rights only within a minuscule “free speech zone” located near a campus thoroughfare. Not only that — before doing so, he had to obtain a permit from college officials.

With legal assistance from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a national organization that advocates for free speech on college campuses, Shaw is suing Pierce and the Los Angeles Community College District claiming that his 1st Amendment rights were violated. He makes a compelling case.

A spokesman for the district says that it "firmly stands behind every student's right to free expression.” But that lofty language is hard to square with a policy of confining free speech — including protests, speeches and the distribution of literature — to a 616-square-foot parcel on a 426-acre campus. And if, as Shaw’s complaint alleges, Pierce requires permission in advance before a student may engage in speech even within the zone, that limits spontaneous and anonymous speech and may imply that the college can veto speech it didn’t like.

As Shaw’s complaint in federal court notes, the Supreme Court has held that "state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the 1st Amendment.” Yet the community college district has only grudgingly acknowledged that reality. Its “free speech” policy describes the colleges as “non-public forums, except for those portions of each college designated as free speech areas.”

No one would suggest that every inch of a campus must be open to leafleting and political proselytizing. Dormitories, dining halls and classrooms are different from open spaces and sidewalks. (Pierce’s campus also includes a farm used for the college’s agricultural and equestrian programs. A student milking a cow shouldn’t be interrupted by a political spiel any more than a student dissecting a lab specimen or translating a poem.)

But when a public college or university squeezes the expression of political views into a tightly circumscribed area, it not only undermines its commitment to the free exchange of ideas; it runs afoul of the 1st Amendment.

As a federal judge put it in a 2004 case involving a challenge to limitations on expression at Texas Tech University Law School: “To the extent [that] the campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the university's students, irrespective of whether the university has so designated them or not.”

The community college district should see this lawsuit as a learning experience. The lesson is that its view of the 1st Amendment — like the space in which Pierce College apparently wanted to confine Kevin Shaw and his advocacy — is too small.

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