LOS ANGELES (CN) – A California community college student who found support from the U.S. attorney general in a complaint against his college’s free-speech policies will get his day in court, after a federal judge rejected the school’s motion to dismiss the suit.
Kevin Shaw challenged Pierce College’s free-speech policies in March 2017, particularly the designated “Free Speech Areas” on campus that can only be used with permit.
In his ruling on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright denied the college’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding open, outdoor areas of colleges and universities, like Pierce College’s “mall,” are a traditional public forum despite what the school’s regulations call it.
Shaw handed out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus and was notified by a school official of the policy he was violating. Other areas on campus outside the “Free Speech Areas” do not interfere with or block access to buildings or sidewalks on the campus, but students still find room to debate and interact with each other.
“These facts tend to establish the open areas of Pierce’s campus are a public forum,” Wright wrote in his ruling.
In his complaint, Shaw said the terms of the permits and “Free Speech Areas” were not posted and “severely restrict free speech and expressive activity.” The school’s terms were also only available by requesting and obtaining a permit from administrators.
In its response, the school said Shaw did not show how his First Amendment rights were violated or threatened by the policies.
“The court’s ruling sends an important message to colleges nationwide that still restrict student speech to free speech zones,” said Foundation for Individual Rights in Education attorney Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, Shaw’s representation, in a statement.
This past October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in support of Shaw’s complaint.
Shaw, a Libertarian and then a member of the Young Americans for Liberty club at Pierce College, said the policy played favorites by requiring each permit applicant to disclose party affiliation.
He said the school’s policy stopped all “spontaneous or anonymous speech because individuals must fill out an application for the use of the space and identify themselves and their organization prior to accessing it.”
The school relied on the college district rules which “declare its campuses to be non-public fora, except the Free Speech Area, which defendants claim is a limited public forum.”
But Wright disagreed, given the traditional purpose of open places like the school’s “mall,” area where Shaw was handing out his literature.
“This does not eviscerate defendants’ ability to regulate speech in these areas with reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, narrowly tailored to serve their interests; it simply limits their ability to create content-based restrictions,” Wright wrote in his ruling.
“There are ample ways for defendants to achieve their stated goals without precluding so much protected speech: Defendants could limit expression to areas away from classrooms or impose restrictions on the time students are able to express themselves. Instead, defendants preclude all speech in substantial portions of the campus, such as the mall, without any discernible connection to their stated interests.”
Wright also rejected the individual defendants’ request for qualified immunity, since Shaw sued them in their individual capacities, though he did block Shaw from suing them for money.
The college district declined to comment on pending litigation.
“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,” said Yusef Robb, consultant to the district.
Defendants in the case include Pierce College President Kathleen Burke, members of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees and a school dean.
Shaw is running as the Libertarian candidate for the 38th state Assembly District, which includes Santa Clarita. The seat is currently held by Assemblyman Dante Acosta, a Republican.