Legal action being pursued against colleges allegedly suppressing free speech

Across the country, colleges are allegedly suppressing the free speech of their students, according to the national student Libertarian organization Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). According to a series of press releases from YAL, community colleges in Michigan, Massachusetts and Kentucky have been accused of restricting free speech. These restrictions range from colleges stopping students from handing out pocket U.S. constitutions to requiring protests to be kept within a small portion of campus.

One such incident occurred in September 2016 at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan. Perhaps the most provocative case highlighted by YAL in September 2016, campus security arrested three YAL members who were handing out pocket U.S. Constitutions and talking to students about the campus YAL club. Security officers approached the students asking them to halt their activity. After they refused, they were arrested and charged with trespassing. Kellogg’s administration claims that the students violated the school’s solicitation policy which states that “Soliciting activities on campus are permitted only when the activities support the mission of Kellogg Community College (KCC) or the mission of a recognized college entity or activity.” The policy continues, “Non-College organizations may conduct solicitation activities on campus only when lawfully sponsored by a recognized College entity.”

In an interview with the Highlander, Pooja Bachani, the director of communications for the YAL national chapter, said, “it is shocking and upsetting to see officials from public colleges refer to our country’s founding document as a threatening solicitation.” Bachani stated that in response to the students’ arrest, YAL launched the National Fight for Free Speech campaign to preserve open discussion and freedom of speech and thought.

Kellogg’s administration has responded claiming misinformation has been spread on the part of those involved. In a statement sent via email from Eric Greene, Director of Public Information and Marketing at Kellogg Community College to the Highlander, said, “as an academic institution … the College takes seriously any allegation that one’s freedom of expression has been infringed and is taking steps to affirm that its policies remain in compliance with applicable laws.” Greene stated that the members were not students and that YAL is not a registered student organization. This was, however, contradicted by one of the members arrested at Kellogg who, in an article, claimed she was in fact a student.

In response to an injunction on Kellogg’s solicitation policy filed by attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit Christian conservative organization that advocates for religious freedoms, in May 2017, Kellogg filed a countersuit against the injunction on June 21, 2017. The injunction sought to limit Kellogg’s ability to enforce their solicitation policy.

Greene responded to this lawsuit in a press release obtained by the Highlander, “‘This case is not about free speech or viewpoint discrimination. We have felt from day one of this unnecessary lawsuit that the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit and that the College’s Solicitation Policy is constitutional and appropriate in its scope.’” Greene emphasized that similar policies are in effect at other governmental institutions like city halls and military memorials.

Another incident occurred at Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) in May 2017, where students were similarly stopped from distributing pocket U.S. Constitutions due to the fact that it violated the school’s speech codes. ADF and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to BHCC on May 17 explaining that their speech codes “prohibit expressive activity without advanced permission and approval, restrict the content of printed material that may be distributed,” as well as possessing the power to discriminate against unpopular opinions.

Bachani stated that this action at BHCC was “yet another example of egregious policies on college campuses that restrict free speech.” Bachani went on to say that “it is disturbing to hear that students are denied the ability to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution because it has not been pre-approved by university officials, begging the question as to what the approval process entails.”

BHCC did not respond to request for comment regarding these allegations.

UCR has been criticized in the past for limiting students’ rights to freedom of speech marked by student protests by the on-campus YAL branch in April 2017 on the campus’ speech codes. FIRE publishes a “spotlight” of several universities and provides ratings based on each campus’ strictness pertaining to speech codes. UCR has been given a “red” rating, suggesting this campus possesses “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” according to FIRE.

FIRE highlights UCR’s Title IX and Sexual Harassment Office’s “What is Sexual Harassment?” article as one of the “Red Light Policies.” UCR’s sexual harassment code states that something counting as harassment includes “insults, name-calling, and offensive jokes” which FIRE considers excessive.

Among the UCR policies on FIRE’s second tier, “Yellow Light Policies,” are seven campus policies among which are the UC’s policy on Expression of Bias, which defines that as “a general communication not directed toward a particular individual, which disparages a group of people on the basis of some characteristic.” “Yellow Light Policies” aggregated by FIRE also include UCR’s limits on posting flyers as well as protest assembly restrictions.

At time of print, UCR had not yet responded to a request for comment.

Facebook Comments