Freedom of Speech on the College Campus

Posted on Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 at 11:34 am    

By Rachel Silber, Spolin Law Criminal and Civil Rights Law Clerk

Los Angeles Daily News covered a story about Kevin Shaw, President of Pierce College’s Young Americans for Liberty, who claims that last fall he was banned from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on his college campus. Pierce College’s Woodland Hills Campus has designated free speech zones; Shaw reports the space is about the size of three parking spots. Shaw filed a lawsuit against Pierce College’s Woodland Hills campus on Tuesday, March 28th, with the claim that the college has infringed on his civil right to freedom of speech. The Los Angeles Community College District has a rule that asserts its colleges are forums of public speech only in the selected areas. Shaw has voiced his disdain for the rule, claiming that other students feel the rule is “arbitrary.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group dedicated to defending the rights of students on college campuses, is on Shaw’s side. The foundation’s litigation director announced that public campuses are not allowed to limit students’ freedom of speech to tiny spaces. Pierce College allegedly had no further comments on the lawsuit.

Tinker v. Des Moines is a landmark United States Supreme Court case presiding over the function of freedom of speech in public schools. After the Vietnam War, many public schools designated freedom of speech to small zones in an attempt to limit protests. When two Des Moines, Iowa students wore black armbands to school in protest of Vietnam war, they were suspended. The first ruling in a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the school, concluding that the armbands would disrupt student learning. After losing in a U.S. Court of Appeals, the students went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ruling 7-2 in the favor of the students, the Supreme Court stated that students had free rights, and do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Justice Fortas, Tinker v. Des Moines). In other cases, such as Morse v. Frederick, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school officials have the right to prohibit students’ freedom of speech when encouraging illegal activities. After Tinker, two categories for the rights to freedom of speech have arisen regarding public schools. The first is that students have their right to freedom of speech, but secondly, school officials have the right to limit the speech if it is promoting illegal activities. Whether the court rules that Shaw’s activity in passing out U.S. Constitutions promotes illegal activities is unknown. However, many college campuses have reportedly been redefining their rules on freedom of speech, and expanding speech zones.

Public institutions, especially higher academic institutions, take great pride in their diversity. An academic environment in conjunction with a multitude of different political influences, there are bound to be some sort of chafing of ideals between communities. Free expression protects these communities when adding opposing views into the intellectual atmosphere a college campus provides. Nonetheless, The Washington Post’s, In Defense of Free Speech, reported that around 40% of millennials, the student body majority on college campuses, “favor government restrictions on offensive speech” (Petri, 2015).

There will be no punishment in the court ruling in favor of Pierce College or Shaw. The court’s conclusion on Shaw verses Pierce College could have the ability to outline other public institutions and its relationship to freedom of speech in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Until then, Shaw plans on not provoking the situation until the court makes a conclusion.

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