Win: VA Community College System to Change 'Free Speech Zone' Policy

Sarah Jean Seman

4/16/2014 5:52:00 PM - Sarah Jean Seman

A system of 23 community colleges in Virginia is about to become more in line with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Virginia Community College System (VCCS) is seeking to alter its policy on free-speech zones in response to a lawsuit brought by student Christian Parks.

Last September, Thomas Nelson Community College prohibited Christian Parks from expressing his Christian beliefs in a large courtyard of the college. An officer from the college’s police department told him he must stop preaching because the content of his speech might offend someone. School officials then told Parks that his speech violated the Student Code of Conduct and VCCS policies.

The Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit, Parks v. The Members of the State Board of the Virginia Community College System, explains that sidewalks and open spaces on campus are areas where students have broad free speech rights, including the right to express their views anonymously and spontaneously.

The First Amendment prohibits laws which limit free speech and the free exercise of religion; however, many college campuses put in place codes which violate the U.S. Constitution.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently surveyed 427 schools across the nation and found that more than 58 percent “substantially prohibit protected speech.” The good news is that these restrictive policies have been declining for six consecutive years, and this recent lawsuit sparked yet another victory:

In a court filing last week in support of a motion from both sides to put the lawsuit on hold, the community college system said it would not enforce its current policy as it works to develop a new student policy.

"Both parties desire to suspend the … current policy in order to allow (Parks) and all other students to speak freely on campus" until a new policy is adopted, the joint filing said. With continuing talks between the Alliance and the state's attorney general's office, "counsel for the parties believe that they may be able to reach an amicable settlement in this case."

A proposed settlement is expected by early May.