A Texas college student filed suit against her school this week, saying her constitutional rights were violated when she was shooed off the quad for displaying a pro-Second Amendment sign.
Nicole Sanders, 24, who attends Blinn College, a two-year public college in Brenham, Texas, said she and a classmate at the 18,000-student school were holding signs near the student center in February when they were told to move. Sanders' sign read, “Defend Gun Rights on Campus,” and the other said “LOL,” with President Obama’s logo as the “O.” The pair was trying to attract members for a student group they were forming, a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.
Sanders claims a college official accompanied by three armed campus police officers approached and said someone had complained that their display was offensive and that they wouldn’t be allowed to do it again unless they got “special permission.” According to Sanders, the official added that it was unlikely such permission would be granted to advocate for gun rights.
"When you have to get permit before you can speak, it shuts down ideas."
- Nicole Sanders, Blinn College student
“When you have to get a permit before you can speak, it shuts down ideas – everything gets censored through the administrators,” Sanders, who is studying political science, told FoxNews.com. "It's unconstitutional for a public university to limit speech to one area of campus. I think that college should be a marketplace of ideas.”
There was an option, Sanders says she was told. She and her classmate, Chris Bradford, who is not part of the suit, could display their signs at a “free speech area” off to the side of the campus center, roughly the size of two parking spaces, where few would see her.
“You only get so many people there,” Sanders told FoxNews.com.
Her lawsuit, which is being filed in federal court in Austin with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), also alleges that her ceramics professor, David Peck, tried to intimidate her into not suing the school. The suit alleges that he warned her that he would “protect me and mine” from accusations against Blinn College and that Sanders “better think” before taking further action.
Peck did not respond to a request for comment Friday. University spokesman Jeff Tilley said the school is evaluating its policies.
“We certainly will take this opportunity to evaluate our policies as they are written and as they are applied by faculty and staff," Tilley said. "We will evaluate whether any misunderstandings may have occurred. Because of our commitment to our students and to the law, we are confident that we will be able to resolve any concerns that have been raised.”
Tilley said the school has a policy not to discriminate based on politics, but that it can have reasonable restrictions to ensure order.
“Blinn College is allowed to implement what the courts call “time, place and manner” regulations to ensure that the operations of the college, including classes in session, are not disrupted,” he said.
First Amendment legal experts say Sanders has a strong case if they can show other types of speech were permitted in the same area.
"If they can prove that they were specially denied because they were for gun rights, then it would be unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination,” Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in the First Amendment, told FoxNews.com.
He added that it also was unconstitutional in another way.
“On government property, even in an airport outside the security cordon, bans on leafleting and other 'low footprint' speech would be unconstitutional,” he said.
Despite that, such bans are common on universities. Volokh attributes that to a bureaucratic mindset.
“Colleges are government institutions. They are run by people who see their primary job as making everything run smoothly, with a minimum of complaints and a minimum of upset. It takes publicity, and often a lawsuit, for them to realize ‘Well, there is this legal rule that we need to be following,'" he said.
FIRE often files such lawsuits, and recently won a case against the University of Hawaii, which tried to ban students from handing out the U.S. Constitution in most areas of campus, and only reversed course after being sued.
Sanders' lawyer is optimistic about this case.
“Blinn College thinks it’s acceptable to have a free speech zone that is the size of a parking spot," FIRE lawyer Catherine Sevcenko said. "But the Constitution’s free speech zone is the size of the United States.”