Kevin Shaw, a student studying philosophy and political science at Pierce College in Los Angeles, was stopped by a school official when he was handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. He said he was told only allowed to do so in the “free-speech zone” on campus — 616 square feet of the school’s 426 acres — and would need a permit.
Shaw, with an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Los Angeles Community College District, which requires its schools to designate such zones on campus.
The Justice Department argued Tuesday that the college’s speech policies created unconstitutional prior restraint that chilled free expression.
“University officials and faculty must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a written statement. “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.”
Yusef Robb, a consultant for the district, said it does not comment on pending litigation, but said, “We are fully committed to free expression on our campuses. As a community college district, promoting the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is at the core of what we do, every day.”
Last month, Sessions attacked colleges for what he said was suppression of students’ right to free speech and giving in to the demands of protesters.
In that speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Sessions mentioned the Pierce case as an example of the problem.
“The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate,” he told the audience at Georgetown Law, as protesters rallied outside. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
He announced at the time that the Justice Department had filed a statement of interest in a case in Georgia, in which students objected to being restricted to two “free speech zones,” and said the department would be filing more soon.