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Virginia college 'free-speech zones' latest to fall

The latest in a string of successful court challenges to college "free speech zones" is unfolding in Virginia, where lawyers are negotiating a settlement in the case of a student who was barred from preaching on campus.

The Virginia Community College System has agreed to suspend its student demonstrations policy in response to a lawsuit filed by Thomas Nelson Community College student Christian Parks. Both sides have asked a federal judge in Norfolk to put the case on hold until May 2 while a new policy and settlement details are negotiated.

 Judicial history and recent legislative developments suggested Parks had a good chance of prevailing. Over the last dozen years, several similar policies establishing restrictive speech zones at public colleges have been invalidated by courts or changed by officials to settle lawsuits alleging violation of students' First Amendment rights. And on April 4, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation limiting public colleges' restraint on student expression.

"Coast to coast, these kinds of restrictions on student speech are a widespread problem," said Parks' attorney, David Hacker of the Christian legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says about six in 10 colleges nationwide have policies that violate First Amendment rights -- and about one in six impose "free speech zones" like the policy at issue in the Virginia case -- even though such restrictions rarely survive constitutional challenges.

In 2002, West Virginia University dropped its free-speech zone policy after being sued by a civil liberties organization. Two years later, a federal judge struck down Texas Tech's policy establishing a 20-foot-wide gazebo as a free-speech zone. Last year, Des Moines Area Community College abandoned a policy restricting student leaflet-distribution activities to a table in the student center. And earlier this year, Modesto Junior College in California agreed to drop its free-speech zone and pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a student who was barred from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.

Free-speech advocates find it troubling that, despite the court rulings, many public colleges persist in squelching student expression.

"Colleges and universities are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas and should be encouraging debate," Hacker said. Instead, he said, too many are worried about offending someone.

"If you go through four years of college and haven't been offended, you should ask for your money back," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of FIRE. He said the only people who support speech restrictions "are those on campus who think it will make their jobs easier."

Jeffrey Kraus, a spokesman for the community college system, declined to comment because of the pending litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Parks was preaching to his fellow students in a courtyard last year when a campus police officer ordered him to stop because "the content of his speech might offend someone."

About a week later, Parks claims, the officer again silenced him and school officials said he was violating a policy governing student demonstrations. The policy allows demonstrations only by recognized student organizations, requires four days advance notice and limits the activity to a specific area. Parks quit preaching for fear of disciplinary action.

"Mr. Parks would like to continue preaching not only in the Courtyard, but also in other open, outdoor areas of campus that are generally open to passers-by," the lawsuit says.

Ryan Douglas of Yorktown, vice president of the Student Government Association at Thomas Nelson, said he witnessed one of Parks' encounters with police. Douglas, 28, said Parks wasn't being disruptive. He had no quarrel with the officer's actions but said the policy he was enforcing went too far and needed to be changed.

"Obviously I wish it could have come under more amicable and better circumstances," he said.

Parks did not respond to messages relayed through a family member, and Hacker said his client is not granting interview requests.

The legislation signed into law by McAuliffe says public colleges cannot impose "time, place and manner" speech restrictions unless they are reasonable, are not based on content of the speech and are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. The measure takes effect July 1.

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