Nobody puts free speech in a corner

Pierce student Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit on March 28 against the college, stating that not only is the Free Speech Zone too small, but the policies are “arbitrarily” enforced.

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

Pierce College President Kathleen Burke and other Pierce College administrators being sued had no comment and redirected all inquiries to Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) officials.

Vice Chancellor of the Finance and Resource Development Robert B. Miller said in an email that because the investigation is ongoing and litigation is still pending, he could only repeat what LACCD has been providing media inquiries.

“The Los Angeles Community College District firmly stands behind every student’s right to free expression. We have no further comment on the lawsuit at this time,” Vice Chancellor of the Finance and Resource Development Robert B. Miller said in the email.

Shaw was confronted by administration last fall as he handed out Spanish-language copies of the US Constitution on the Pierce Mall, seeking to recruit students for Young Americans for Liberty, a political organization with chapters on college campuses across the US.

“It was during the election that we had Republicans and Democrats saying nasty things to each other, fighting and being disrespectful,” Shaw said. “My main intention with starting the club was to show there was a middle ground.”

Shaw was told that he could not distribute literature outside of the Free Speech Area, and to distribute within the area, he would have to fill out a permit.

“We are paying for access to the school. I thought the free speech zone was for outside people, non-students,” Shaw said. “You see people there with bibles, people handing out movie tickets. I didn’t think students were also required to apply for a permit.”

The Free Speech Area is a 616 square foot area located on the Mall. According to FIRE, the area makes up .003 percent of a 426-acre campus.

“If Pierce College were the size of a tennis court, the area where students are allowed to exercise their constitutional rights would be smaller than a standard iPhone,” FIRE stated in a press release.

Arthur I. Willner, of Leader & Berkon, LLP, is part of a network of outside attorneys in the US who work with FIRE for cases in Southern California. He has worked with FIRE for the last ten years.

“Once they described what the issues were in the case, I was in disbelief that the same issue is coming up yet again,” Willner said. “You would think at this point schools would understand that these rules are unconstitutional, and they need to change them.”

According to Willner, as a public institution, Pierce College is legally obligated to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students, and it is not.

Brynne Madway is an associate attorney for FIRE and began working on freedom of speech cases with the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

“The Supreme Court has made it very clear that the First Amendment applies on college campuses,” Madway said. “By restricting students to these really tiny spots on campus, students aren’t able to really speak with their peers. All of the outside areas should be open to free speech just like a public park.”

In November last year, Pierce students and faculty staged a rally on the Mall around the Bull statue to show opposition to the ideas and statements made by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Sheriff’s deputies and Pierce administration, including Burke, were on standby at the Mall.  Shaw said that the Trump rally, which was outside the Free Speech Area, was in violation of BOT rules, yet it was not stopped.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have our political views confined to a small area,” Shaw said.

According to Shaw, the free speech policies are arbitrarily enforced by administration.

Shaw was put in touch with FIRE through Young Americans for Liberty. Shaw said that he hadn’t intended to pursue legal action until much later.

“I had no idea what to do. I just knew that I wanted to make a change,” Shaw said.

Madway said another important aspect of the lawsuit is to bring awareness to students about freedom of speech issues on college campuses.

“I think it shows the strength of individual students who are willing to stand up for their rights,” Madway said. “I think the most important part of this is getting students to realize what the issue is.”

According to Willner, Pierce College’s free speech policy, the Free Speech Area, and the requirement that students obtain a permit to use a “miniscule free speech zone” is unconstitutional.

“It’s a nationwide problem that we see at campuses across the country,” Willner said. “Hopefully, at least with respect to Pierce and the district policies, we can sit down with district attorneys and come up with a change whereby students can use most of the campus in terms of exercising their free speech under the First Amendment.”

According to Article IX of the Board of Trustees (BOT) rules, the colleges in LACCD are nonpublic forums. Each campus is to have a Free Speech Area designated by the college president in an area on campus with a constant flow of students. This area is a limited public forum which can be removed or revoked at the discretion of the BOT.

“When I went to college, which was back in the early ‘70s, if anybody had asked me or asked anybody where the free speech area was, they would have probably said, ‘Well, it’s from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska to Florida and everything in between. The entire country is a free speech area,’” Willner said.

More recently, San Gabriel Valley’s Citrus College had to pay a $110,000 settlement in 2014 to student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle. Sinapi-Riddle was told he could not collect signatures outside of the campus’ designated free speech zone. In addition to the settlement, Citrus College also agreed to increase the size of the free speech area.