College

LA college sued by student for allegedly curbing his free speech rights

Pierce College student, Kevin Shaw, 27, filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Community College District after he was barred from passing out copies of the document because he wasn’t in the designated “free speech zone" on campus.

Pierce College student, Kevin Shaw, 27, filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Community College District after he was barred from passing out copies of the document because he wasn’t in the designated “free speech zone" on campus.  (Photo courtesy of Dawn Bowery/FIRE)

A Los Angeles college student is suing his school for allegedly curbing his free speech rights to pass out copies of the U.S. Constitution.

Pierce College student, Kevin Shaw, 27, filed his lawsuit Tuesday against the Los Angeles Community College District after he was barred from passing out copies of the document because he wasn’t in the school’s designated “free speech zone,” which measures 616 square feet or about the size of three parking spaces.

“When I attempted to hand out copies of the Constitution that day, my only intention was to get students thinking about our founding principles and to inspire discussion of liberty and free speech,” Shaw said in a statement. “I had no idea I would be called upon to defend those very ideals against Pierce’s unconstitutional campus policies.”

“This fight is about a student’s right to engage in free thinking and debate while attending college in America.”

It was just before the general election in November 2016 when Shaw had attempted to distribute Spanish-language copies of the Constitution during a recruiting drive for his student group, a campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty on the main quad. A Pierce administrator told him he could not distribute literature outside the designated zone. Shaw says he was also told that he would have to fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone and would be asked to leave campus if he refused to comply.

“Students like Kevin go to college to learn and grow in conversation with their peers, but a free speech quarantine like Pierce’s threatens to punish students who speak their minds in the wrong place,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is representing Shaw in his lawsuit. “The law is clear: Public colleges like Pierce can’t force students into tiny slices of campus to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

An official for Pierce College, which is a part of the 150,0000-student Los Angeles Community College District, says that they support free speech rights.

“Students like Kevin go to college to learn and grow in conversation with their peers, but a free speech quarantine like Pierce’s threatens to punish students who speak their minds in the wrong place."

- Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

“The Los Angeles Community College District firmly stands behind every student’s right to free expression,” LACCD spokesman Yusef Robb said, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “We have no further comment on the lawsuit at this time.”

Shaw’s lawsuit also challenges a long-standing policy of the district that requires the president from each of the colleges to designate at least one free speech zone on their campus.

“At the very moment when colleges and universities should be encouraging open debate and the active exchange of ideas, Pierce College instead sends the message to its students that free speech is suspect and should be ever more tightly controlled,” said attorney Arthur Willner, who is co-council with FIRE on Shaw’s lawsuit. “This does a disservice to the student body, as well as being contrary to long-established law.”

Shaw’s situation is reminiscent of a 2014 incident in which a California college student and veteran was also blocked by school officials from handing out copies of the Constitution.

Back in September, FoxNews.com aired the video Robert Van Tuinen took of his confrontation with school officials at Modesto Junior college.

In the video, Van Tuinen is confronted by an unidentified campus police officer within minutes of passing out the pamphlets. When he protests, he is told, “There are rules.”

“But do you know what this is?” he asks. “What are the rules? Why are the rules tied to my free speech?”

Van Tuinen then explains that he wants to start an organization called Young Americans for Liberty.

“That’s fine, but if you’re going to start an organization like that you have to go through the rigmarole,” the police officer tells him.

"It was a tense situation," Van Tuinen told FoxNews.com at the time. "To be told I can't do something as basic as handing out the Constitution was frustrating."

Eventually, the police officer escorts Van Tuinen into an administrative office, where an unidentified woman shows him a binder with rules she says govern free speech on campus. She explains that there is a designated place “in front of the student center, in that little cement area,” where free expression is allowed, but then notes that two people are already using it.

The vet eventually filed his own lawsuit, winning a $50,000 settlement and getting the school to agree to revise its speech code.

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych