Discovery: lawsuit

The United States Central District Court of California denied the LACCD’s motion to dismiss the free speech lawsuit filed by Pierce student Kevin Shaw, stating that outdoor, open areas of universities “are traditional public fora, regardless of Pierce’s regulations naming them non-public fora.”

“Free speech cases that reject a motion to dismiss are very encouraging for students and educators alike,” said Pooja Bachani, the Director of Communications for the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). “It’s something to celebrate that free speech is being upheld, especially on college campuses.”

Shaw is being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) as the first lawsuit in its Million Voices Campaign. The campaign’s goal is to “free the voices of 1 million students by striking down unconstitutional speech codes across the country.”

“It’s an excellent opinion for student free speech rights on campus,”said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, the Director of Litigation for FIRE. “In the complaint, Shaw alleged First Amendment violations resulting from certain policies and practices related to student expression by the college and by the LACCD.”

Shaw filed a lawsuit on March 28, 2017 against the college, stating that the Pierce Free Speech Area is too small and the policies are “arbitrarily” enforced.

Alexander Staudt, the YAL Director of Free Speech, said that his organization identifies universities with unconstitutional regulations, then they begin advocating for First Amendment rights on campus.

“We determine what cases we pursues based on the policies at the university. We have about 200 schools targeted,” Staudt said. “Ironically enough, LA Pierce wasn’t even on my radar.”

Beck-Coon said the case has moved to a period of illumination. The court denied the majority of the motion to dismiss in January.

“Now the case is proceeding into a period of time where the parties exchange information. It will continue to proceed to further motions, and then possibly to trial,” Beck-Coon said.

According to the court’s Order and Opinion for Motion to Dismiss, Pierce College, Shaw v. Burke, LACCD made a motion to dismiss the case on May 24, 2017, arguing that Shaw’s claims are precluded by the Eleventh Amendment, which bars all claims of monetary damages against public officials.

In October of the previous year, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest supporting Shaw’s complaint.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement that said the DOJ strives to protect Freedom of Speech on college campuses.  

“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. The Justice Department continues to do its part in defending free speech, protecting students’ free expression and enforcing federal law,” Sessions said in the statement.  

Beck-Coon said that the DOJ agreed that the legal team had appropriately alleged First Amendment violations.

“We were very happy to have a statement by the DOJ that shared our interpretation of the law,” Beck-Coon said.

Staudt said he works closely with FIRE to advocate for student rights on campus. He said there shouldn’t be free speech zones on campus.

“We think these zones are obscure and it’s funny that these universities think they can regulate the First Amendment beyond the Constitution,” Staudt said.

Beck-Coon said that they hope this lawsuit will be one of many that permits students to exercise their legal rights on college campuses.

“We certainly hope that, if we are successful, the college and the district will have to change their policies in such a way that they are more permissive of students’ expressive rights on campus, and that it will have a positive impact on the rights of students and the entire district,” BecK-Coon said.

Bachani said that the case sends a message that free speech is an important right to preserve.

“We had the constitution on our side. This case moving forward sets the tone and sends a clear message that this will not be tolerated,” Bachani said. “The First Amendment is paramount to education.”