Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Student wins first round in free speech fight

Free Speech | Federal judge rejects community college bid to dismiss challenge to campus speech restrictions
by Leigh Jones
Posted 1/23/18, 02:09 pm

A Southern California community college student won the first round in his fight against Pierce College last week when a federal court ruled the school’s free speech policy violated students’ constitutional rights.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California sided with Kevin Shaw and rejected the school’s bid to have the suit dismissed. Shaw challenged the school after administrators told him in March he could not hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution unless he agreed to stand in a specified “free speech zone” and get prior approval for his activity.

The school’s lawyers argued administrators had to limit speech to a specific area to avoid campus disruptions. Judge Otis D. Wright didn’t dispute the need to maintain order.

“However, defendants’ literally ‘narrow’ free speech area, comprising 616 square feet on a campus spanning hundreds of acres, does not achieve defendants’ stated goals without unnecessarily impeding students’ First Amendment rights,” he wrote.

Wright noted all outdoor open areas on campus qualified as public forums for free speech. While that’s a concept enshrined in the Constitution, he noted, it should carry extra weight on a college campus: “This characterization makes sense because, after all, what is a university’s purpose but to expose students to new ideas and spark dialogue?”

Like many other community colleges and universities, Pierce College and the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) have policies restricting where students can gather for protests, hand out literature advocating for a cause, or talk to their fellow students about important issues. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is helping to represent Shaw, notes that more than 450 higher education institutions have similar speech codes. Although courts almost always side with students or other members of the public who challenge the policies, no case has yet prompted a widespread reversal. Last year’s violent protests at schools across the country didn’t help free speech advocates who say restrictive policies are both unconstitutional and unnecessary.

“The court’s ruling sends an important message to colleges nationwide that still restrict student speech to free speech zones,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation. “The campus is a college student’s public square. It’s their space to be engaged citizens. The public recognizes this. So do courts across the country. Now it’s time for LACCD to follow suit.”

Shaw’s case is one of several the U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on, filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the student’s right to free speech. Although Shaw scored an initial win in the case, he must still press for a ruling on the merits of his claim unless Pierce College agrees to settle.

Creative Commons/Photo by Elvert Barnes Creative Commons/Photo by Elvert Barnes A Washington, D.C., city bus

Government sides with archdiocese in bus ad case

The U.S. Justice Department has sided with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., in a case against local censorship of religious advertising. Last fall, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) rejected the archdiocese’s Christmas ad, which depicted shepherds following the star of Bethlehem and included the message: “Find the perfect gift.” The ad also listed the web address for a site with information about the archdiocese’s Christmas events and the phrase, “Jesus is the perfect gift.”

The transit authority said it does not allow any ads promoting religion, but the Justice Department argued it can’t use that policy to justify viewpoint discrimination. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last week, the department said because the transit authority accepts other ads related to Christmas, including those encouraging charitable giving, it cannot reject the archdiocese’s ads.

“Just as a university cannot subsidize secular speech on a given topic while refusing to subsidize religious speech on the same topic, WMATA cannot accept a secular Christmas advertisement encouraging charitable giving while rejecting religious Christmas ads that do the same,” the brief stated. In essence, the department argued, the transit authority is turning the Constitution on its head by favoring commercial speech, including ads for Christmas gifts, over First Amendment–protected free speech.

Famed Supreme Court litigator Paul Clement is representing the archdiocese. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the transit authority, and the church’s appeal is pending with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. —Lynde Langdon

Facebook/Adorers of the Blood of Christ Facebook/Adorers of the Blood of Christ A protest against a pipeline in Lancaster, Pa.

Nuns cite religious liberty in pipeline fight

A group of nuns in Pennsylvania is making an interesting argument against a natural gas pipeline slated to cut across their cornfield: The pipe violates their religious liberty because Pope Francis has urged Catholics to protect the earth. The nuns, members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, cited the papal encyclical Laudato Si to bolster the theological basis of their argument. Government lawyers argue the sisters can’t make that claim now because they didn’t bring it up sooner. A lower court already threw out the nuns’ case, but they appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “If there’s anybody who thinks sisters live quiet, uneventful lives, they have not met the Adorers of the Blood of Christ,” Sister Janet McCann said after the hearing. “And they have not heard about our resistance to the forced placement of a 42-inch, high-pressure fracked gas pipeline on our farmland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • Janet S
    Posted: Wed, 01/24/2018 08:35 am

    Interesting that on college campuses that are meant to be places of learning and knowledge want to relagate only 616 square feet to the US Constitution (I am aware that it could be more or less depending where you are).  Speaks volumes about their agenda.