On Sept. 17, Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen decided to celebrate U.S. Constitution Day by handing out copies of the Constitution at Modesto Junior College, where he is a student. If he were at the University of California, Berkeley or another politically correct campus, some liberal students probably would have picked an argument with him and maybe even would have accused him of hate speech.
But as this was Modesto Junior College, Van Tuinen didn't attract a lot of notice. Until, that is, a security guard told Van Tuinen that he couldn't hand out the Constitution. Or "The Communist Manifesto," for that matter. On an edited video, Van Tuinen captured the guard explaining that "passing out anything whatsoever, you have to have permission through the student development office."
An administrative aide at that office explained the school's policies for a "time-place-and-manner free speech area." Students have to sign up in a binder to use a small designated space, and because two students already were protesting, Van Tuinen would have to wait his turn to speak freely and pass out literature.
When Van Tuinen told her he just wanted to pass out copies of the Constitution, she asked, "Um, why?"
Van Tuinen was appalled. When he served in Kuwait, he learned that the military doesn't put a high premium on free speech. Soldiers don't have the same rights as students, and the brass had little interest in his pontificating on the Framers' intent. "That's when I figured out the service wasn't the best place for me," he confided. But who knew that college life would be equally casual about stifling his self-expression?
Yes, Virginia, there is a California college campus where protest is not a major.
Let me confess. In this job, I've observed campus protest at its best, that is to say, worst -- Berkeley students throwing incendiary objects at the chancellor's home, tree-sitters camped in a campus grove for 20 interminable months and UC Davis paying a $1 million settlement to pepper-sprayed students. I can't help it; I find Van Tuinen's story cute as a button.
But it's not. It's not because campus personnel told a student he cannot give out copies of the U.S. Constitution. In a statement, college President Jill Stearns asserted, "There is absolutely no requirement that a student register weeks in advance and hand out his literature only in a small marked area." But a security guard and staff binder suggest otherwise.