DOJ Argues Against Campus 'Free Speech Zone' Speech Restrictions

Posted: Oct 25, 2017 3:45 PM

The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest Tuesday in the case of Kevin Shaw, a California student at Los Angeles Pierce College, who tried to hand out copies of the Constitution on campus and was told he was only allowed to do so in a small, designated, free speech zone after he obtained a permit. Shaw said the college’s system of applying for permits allows administrators unchecked authority to grant or deny permits.

Shaw’s lawsuit, filed last year, challenges the constitutionality of the school’s policies which effectively restrict free expression on campus to a 616 square-foot “Free Speech Area.”

“In order to use the Free Speech Area—which comprises approximately .003% of the campus—students must obtain prior authorization from campus officials by submitting a permit application,” the DOJ notes. “The College also maintains unpublished rules governing free speech, which students are not made aware of until they obtain a permit application.”

The DOJ argues in their brief that the college’s rules are an "unconstitutional prior restraint."

"First, they create an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech in the Free Speech Area," according to the brief. "Second, in all events, they are not valid time, place, and manner restrictions because they are not narrowly tailored and do not leave open ample alternative channels of communication."

“Mr. Shaw’s allegations, if proven,” they add, “demonstrate that Pierce College’s speech policies and practices, which the College applied to deny Mr. Shaw his right to engage in expressive activity in a public forum, imposed prior restraints that were not narrowly tailored to further a significant government interest and failed to provide other alternative channels of communications.”

The DOJ also argues that the problem is not limited to Pierce College.

“Free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country," the brief says. "Such failure is of grave concern because freedom of expression is ‘vital’ on campuses."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that “university officials and faculty must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally.”

“Last month, I promised a recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights,” he said. “The Justice Department continues to do its part in defending free speech, protecting students’ free expression, and enforcing federal law.”

The DOJ filed another statement of interest last month in the case of a lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College. Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at the school, sued after he tried to talk to other students about his Christian faith and was restricted to two free speech zones. Even after he remained within the designated zone he was told to stop because the school believed his speech amounted to disorderly conduct.

The Justice Department argues that “the college’s speech policies were not content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler’s veto, and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”