Free speech on American college campuses is not just threatened by speech codes. It's also threatened by colleges that put bureaucratic barriers in front of speech and attempt to restrict it to tiny "free speech zones."
The FIRE has today's example. Modesto Junior College restricts free speech. Student Robert Van Tuinen decided to make a point about it. He wanted to pass out copies of the United States Constitution in a non-violent and non-disruptive way, and he wanted to do it without applying for a permit first and "registering" what he wanted to hand out and waiting in line behind a narrowly restricted group of permitted speakers, and he wanted to do it outside of the student center, not at the school's pathetic "free speech zone."
Surely, you think Modesto Junior College is not so foolish — not to mention thuggish — to make Van Tuinen's point for him, by stopping him from handing out the Constitution on Constitution Day?
Oh, ye of little faith.
Upon arriving at that office, Van Tuinen talks with administrator Christine Serrano, who tells him that because of “a time, place, and manner,” he can only pass out literature inside the “free speech area,” which she informs him is “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.” She asks him to fill out an application and asks to photocopy his student ID. Hauling out a binder, Serrano says that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.” Van Tuinen protests that he wants to pass out the Constitution on Constitution Day, at which point Serrano dismissively tells him “you really don’t need to keep going on.”
Such is the bureaucratic arrogance of college administrators: they will openly use phrases like "that little cement area," not particularly caring that it illuminates how they view speech and how they wish to marginalize it.
As in most such cases, the school's invocation of "time, place, and manner" language is facile and misleading. The First Amendment does permit reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. But that doctrine does not permit broad restrictions on non-disruptive activities like leafleting, particularly when they are on traditional public fora like sidewalks, and particularly when it results in limiting speech to a few people per month in a tiny concrete speech ghetto. The FIRE explains in their appropriately scathing letter to Modesto Junior College.
Van Tuinen set up a blindingly obvious demonstration of the unprincipled nature of the Modesto Junior College's policy. Modesto Junior College's administrators fell for it.
They didn't fall for it because they're stupid. They fell for it because they're arrogant. They fell for it — if that's the right phrase — because they don't care about free speech.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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