WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. (CN) – Last week, Pierce College student Kevin Shaw learned the U.S. Justice Department supported him in his fight against a school policy that limits free speech on the Los Angeles County campus.
On Nov. 14, he will learn if his lawsuit will go to trial.
In his complaint, Shaw, 27, said Los Angeles Pierce College does not “publish rules or regulations regarding free speech” on its website, on the student portal or in a student handbook or other policy manuals.
But last year, school officials told Shaw he would need a permit to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus, and he would have to do that in a designated free-speech zone.
In a statement of interest filed Oct. 24, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the college’s policy “limits student expression to the Free Speech area and requires students to secure permission to utilize the Free Speech area from college administrators by submitting a permit application in advance.”
Shaw describes himself as a moderate libertarian. He inadvertently ordered Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and handed those out at the Woodland Hills campus.
“The fact that I had Spanish editions of the Constitution was good, because it was right around the time when Trump was making wild accusations about immigrants during the elections,” Shaw said in an interview. “We had good conversations with students about why we might oppose those policies.”
Sessions said the college does not say why it limits free speech to specific areas on the campus. Speech restrictions must “allow students the opportunity to engage with a full cross-section of the campus community.”
Instead, the free speech area relegated students like Shaw to spot on campus the size of three parking spaces. Shaw was trying to recruit students to the Pierce College chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty, which holds libertarian values, including freedom of speech.
During the election, Shaw watched friends with liberal and conservative views become nasty with each other when discussing politics. “There was so much anger, hate. There was a whole middle ground that was not addressed,” said Shaw.
In September, Sessions spoke at Georgetown University and warned students that free speech was under attack on campus colleges.
“The American university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate – a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions said during that speech. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
Violent protests between far-right groups and protestors in public spaces across the nation have ignited the conversation about free speech.
Shaw said it would not be fair to compare his peaceful act of handing out copies of the Constitution on a campus and those demonstrations that turn violent.
“The two are simply not the one in the same. They’re totally different situations,” said Shaw. “I don’t know why someone would try to disguise violence for free speech. There is a difference between speaking your mind and attacking somebody.”
He said the school’s administration should recognize that all speech, whether they agree with it, should be expressed freely on campus. If the lawsuit works out, then the students’ rights will be recognized.
And if the courts do not see it his way, Shaw said, “students will only be able to express what [the administration] deem inoffensive and that’s dangerous.”
Shaw’s case has also made friends out of frequent adversaries: the American Civil Liberties Union agrees with Sessions’ position on campus free speech.
Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel-Manheim Family attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU of Southern California, said Pierce College is not unique in its restriction free speech on campus. Other schools have utilized free-speech zones and Shaw’s complaint is not novel.
“The idea to send someone to this postage-stamp area of the college for free speech is offensive,” Eliasberg said.
Students don't just learn in classrooms and the fact that the school's policy required Shaw to have a permit is ridiculous, he said, adding he does not think Pierce College will be able to defend that policy in court.
A decision from a judge on Shaw’s complaint against Pierce College’s free speech policy would help to clarify the topic for other schools as well, the ACLU attorney said. And the fact that hate groups use the First Amendment to incite violence is a problem, but that doesn’t justify treating all speakers as if that’s what they’re doing to do.
“There is no evidence that Mr. Shaw is doing that,” Eliasberg said.
Shaw filed his complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief and damages, and is represented by the law firm of Leader and Berkon. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is co-counsel in the case.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Community College District said they would not comment on the pending litigation.
"We are fully committed to free expression on our campuses,” said Los Angeles Community College District spokesman Yusef Robb while declining to discuss the pending litigation. “As a community college district, promoting the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is at the core of what we do, every day."
The complaint names Pierce College President, Kathleen Burke, and several school faculty and the LACCD board of trustees.
A motion to dismiss the hearing is scheduled on Nov. 14 at the First Street Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles before U.S. District Judge Otis Wright.
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