Justice Department takes on Pierce College ‘free speech zone’ as part of larger battle

Kevin Shaw was handing out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution to fellow students at Pierce College one afternoon last fall when an administrator approached him.

He told Shaw, president of a libertarian student group, that he needed to move to the campus free-speech zone: a 616-square-foot rectangle, about the size of three parking spots, on the college’s sprawling 426-acre Woodland Hills campus.

But first, Shaw learned, he needed a permit. And even in the zone, he was told, he was allowed to distribute literature only between 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Shaw challenged administrators in a First Amendment lawsuit that recently caught the attention of an unusual ally: the U.S. Justice Department.

In a brief filed this week, federal officials argued that the school’s policies amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint that chilled free expression. The requirement that students give administrators their names and organizational affiliations before engaging in free speech “effectively bans all spontaneous speech,” the filing said.


It marks the second time in a month that the agency has thrown support behind students challenging policies that limit free speech on campus to certain areas. Campus free speech has become an emotional issue over the last year, most notably at UC Berkeley, where the arrival of conservative speakers sparked violent protests. Protesters prevented right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos from talking at Berkeley earlier this year, a move President Trump himself criticized.

The Justice Department’s actions came soon after U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center that the agency would start intervening in court cases involving universities restricting free speech.

The university campus, Sessions said, once “a place of robust debate,” had become “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

“Starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle,” Sessions said last month. “We will enforce federal law, defend free speech and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come.”

Legal experts say the Justice Department’s actions in the Pierce College dispute underscores a clear political shift.

“Since colleges are bastions of liberalism, the conservative Justice Department is going after them,” said Jonathan Kotler, an attorney and media law professor at USC.

Even so, he said, “I think they’re 100% right.”

Others welcomed the intervention, but said campus free-speech zones were hardly the most pressing First Amendment problem facing Americans.

“I don’t see [Sessions] or the Justice Department taking any stance on Trump’s statement that anyone that burns an American flag should be jailed or stripped of their citizenship,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “It would be nice to see the Justice Department making noise about, I think, much higher profile and, in some ways, more disturbing threats to the First Amendment that are emanating from Washington D.C. and from the executive branch in particular.”

The violence at Berkeley has been used by both the far-left and far-right to push their movements in the Trump era. Some conservatives have criticized Berkeley and other causes for what they see as students and others trying to silence free speech they don’t agree with. Carol T. Christ, UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, is trying to counter this with plans for a “Free Speech Year.” Among other things, the campus will hold “point-counterpoint” panels to demonstrate how to exchange opposing views in a respectful manner.

“Now what public speech is about is shouting, screaming your point of view in a public space rather than really thoughtfully engaging someone with a different point of view,” Christ said in August.

The Pierce College case is not the only one getting attention from the Justice Department.

A student at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga., filed a federal lawsuit last year, saying he was barred from distributing Christian literature near the school library and told to stay inside the school’s two designated “free speech zones.” Another student joined the case later. In a brief filed last month, the Justice Department said the students’ 1st and 14th Amendment rights had been violated.

A spokesman for the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, which includes Pierce, declined to comment on the Justice Department’s filing.

“We are fully committed to free expression on our campuses,” district spokesman Yusef Robb said via email. “As a community college district, promoting the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is at the core of what we do, every day.”

Attorneys representing the district have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Efren Lopez, Pierce College’s student body president, felt Shaw, as a student, should be allowed to hand out copies of the Constitution wherever he wants on campus. He added that the free-speech zone is mostly used by outside groups, including those recruiting people to sign petitions or offering discounts on movie passes.

Shaw was doing homework Tuesday when a friend messaged him saying Sessions had mentioned him, by name, in the filing announcement.

He was stunned.

“I don’t know what helps and hurts in a court of law, but it feels good to know there’s support,” Shaw, 27, said. “It feels vindicating in some way to know that I’m not alone in the belief that this isn’t fair.”

Two weeks after his initial encounter with the campus administrator, Shaw spent several hours distributing materials, uninterrupted, outside the free speech area. Soon after, he said, a large protest against Trump convened on campus, also outside the free speech area. Administrators stood by, he said, clapping and cheering.

“It just seems silly that we would silence some speech and allow others to go on uninhibited,” he said. “It’s entirely unfair. It’s arbitrarily applied to silence specific segments of the population.”

Since then, Shaw has scaled back his campus outreach. He said he doesn’t want to get in trouble.

“I can’t afford to get kicked off campus,” he said. “I have classes, I have tests... I’m here for a reason.”

Twitter: @AleneTchek