By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Two students are suing a Hawaii university after they say they were told in January they could not pass out copies of the Constitution to fellow students, in a lawsuit accusing the school of violating their First Amendment rights to free speech.
In a complaint against the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the students' lawyers said the school "unconstitutionally restricts access to open areas on campus by requiring students to seek permission to speak at least seven business days in advance."
The complaint, filed on Thursday, added that the areas where students could engage in "spontaneous expressive activities" was limited to a small fraction of the school's 115-acre campus.
"Part of the paradox is the idea that on a state campus, the exercise of constitutional rights can be confined to a zone, to one-quarter of 1 percent of the campus," said Attorney Bob Corn-Revere, who represents students Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone.
The First Amendment of the Constitution protects the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
The school said in a statement it had initiated a review of its policies and the manner in which they are enforced in the wake of the controversy, adding that it was committed to free expression and the open exchange of ideas.
"This case involves the application of specific policies ... that were implemented to protect those values while preserving the educational environment for all students," the university said. "The policies were developed in a manner completely independent of any specific viewpoint, perspective or content."
The school gave no further details on the policies.
A student handbook published on the university website said student groups may not directly approach people to solicit them in a public venue.
Thursday's lawsuit is the second such action filed this year by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in conjunction with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Corn-Revere said an earlier suit with Modesto Junior College had been settled.
"There are quite a number of campuses that have these free speech zone policies," said Corn-Revere.
The foundation's president, Greg Lukianoff, said students involved in the Modesto suit had also tried to hand out copies of the Constitution. He said he visited the Hilo campus and that the free speech zone was far from where most students congregated.
"Telling students that they have to restrict their free speech activities to 0.26 percent of the university property and a muddy area at that would not be reasonable under any legal analysis," Lukianoff said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)