As an American with First Amendment rights, you’d probably assume that a “Free Speech Zone” would look something like this:
The blue on that map should represent areas where you can exercise your right to free speech. Unfortunately, for many college students, their “Free Speech Zone” shrinks considerably when on campus. One out of every six major colleges have designated “Free Speech Zones” where students are “permitted” to “enjoy” this Constitutional right, and even then there are restrictions. In these colleges, exercising your right to free speech means asking permission at least a couple of days in advance as well as having the administration “approve” your speech.
The latest example of confined and controlled speech comes to us courtesy of Modesto Junior College. As FIRE.org reports, a student found his exercise of free speech shut down on one of the worst days of the year for a college to assert its negative attitude towards the First Amendment.
In a stunning illustration of the attitude taken towards free speech by too many colleges across the United States, Modesto Junior College in California told a student that he could not pass out copies of the United States Constitution outside the student center on September 17, 2013—Constitution Day. Captured on video, college police and administrators demanded that Robert Van Tuinen stop passing out Constitution pamphlets and told him that he would only be allowed to pass them out in the college’s tiny free speech zone, and only after scheduling it several days or weeks ahead of time.
After 10 minutes of handing out these pamphlets, Van Tuinen was approached by a campus police officer. After some discussion regarding the ridiculousness of shutting down free speech on Constitution Day and Van Tuinen’s repeated assertion of his rights, the campus cop tells him to take it up with administration.
[The officer sends out a little cheap shot before Van Tuinen moves on, telling him, “Look at you. You’re shaking.” This is a common cop tactic designed to both a) cast suspicion on the person and b) assert the officer’s control of the situation. The fact that it’s a byproduct of the fight-or-flight response is ignored. People speaking to armed authority figures will often appear nervous because that’s how the human brain works. It’s not solely a byproduct of fear or guilt. It’s adrenaline being pumped with no available outlet.]
The response he receives from administration is no less ridiculous, considering it relies heavily on quoting policy rather than acknowledging the absurdity of shutting down free speech on Constitution Day. (As if it would be any less ridiculous on any other day of the year, but Constitution Day?)
Upon arriving at that office, Van Tuinen talks with administrator Christine Serrano, who tells him that because of “a time, place, and manner,” he can only pass out literature inside the “free speech area,” which she informs him is “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.” She asks him to fill out an application and asks to photocopy his student ID. Hauling out a binder, Serrano says that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.” Van Tuinen protests that he wants to pass out the Constitution on Constitution Day, at which point Serrano dismissively tells him “you really don’t need to keep going on.”
So, now everything’s clear. In a nation where free speech is one of the foundations of society, an American in a public American college (founded by legislation and infused with public money via grants) is restricted to “that little cement area” (see below) — and then only with advance notice and permission. Free speech possibly available in October — get your reservation in now!
As FIRE’s Robert Shibley points out, there’s really no way Modesto Junior College could have handled this situation any worse than it did.
“Virtually everything that Modesto Junior College could do wrong, it did do wrong. It sent police to enforce an unconstitutional rule, said that students could not freely distribute literature, placed a waiting period on free speech, produced an artificial scarcity of room for free speech with a tiny ‘free speech area,’ and limited the number of speakers on campus to two at a time. This was outrageous from start to finish. Every single person at Modesto responsible for enforcing this policy should have known better.”
Free speech isn’t something you box up and dole out. It’s the right of all citizens. Modesto Junior College should know this, being a public college, but has apparently decided it’s much easier to avoid uncomfortable or unpopular speech by violating its students’ First Amendment rights.