A California college student has filed a lawsuit after school officials stopped him from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus.
Kevin Shaw, a philosophy and political science student at Pierce College in Los Angeles, says he was told by school officials that handing out the U.S. Constitution was only allowed in the campus' "free-speech zone," according to the Washington Post.
The official map of Pierce College shows only one free-speech zone.
“These are our rights,” Shaw said after filing the lawsuit in federal court against the college and the Los Angeles Community College District, which requires all campuses to have a free-speech zone. “Why should the school be able to set which groups are allowed to speak, and who is allowed their First Amendment rights?”
Shaw handed out copies of the Constitution following the 2016 presidential election, just after a large anti-Trump protest took place on campus.
“Students had been yelling on both sides, left and right. I wanted to represent a moderate middle, people on the left and the right. We don’t have to hate each other," he said, adding that he voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson and does not consider himself liberal or conservative.
When the school official told Shaw to stop his handouts, he asked about his First Amendment rights. He left when he was told that he would be asked to leave campus if he did not comply. When he tried to discuss the matter with school administrators, they declined.
The Washington Post obtained the following statement from Yusef Robb, a consultant for the district, in response to the lawsuit: "The Los Angeles Community College District firmly stands behind every student's right to free expression."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which believes free-speech zones to be unconstitutional, sees Shaw's lawsuit as the launch of a national effort to combat such designated areas.
“At the very moment when colleges and universities should be encouraging open debate and the active exchange of ideas, Pierce College instead sends the message to its students that free speech is suspect and should be ever more tightly controlled,” Arthur Willner, an attorney working with FIRE on Shaw's case, said in a statement. “This does a disservice to the student body, as well as being contrary to long-established law.”
“A student on a public campus engaging in core protected public speech, peacefully speaking with fellow students … should not have to ask for, essentially, government permission [to do so]," said Marieke Beck-Coon, director of litigation at FIRE.
The one free-speech zone at Pierce College comprises 616 square feet of the school's 426 acres.
The lawsuit challenges the fact that the small area is the only place free speech is allowed on campus, the requirement that permission must be granted to use the area, and the district's rule that every school must have a designated zone.
Supporters of free-speech zones argue that it helps keep campuses safer and prevents demonstrations that could disrupt learning.
Shaw believes he has made the right decision to fight against free-speech zones.
“I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing; I sat down and thought, ‘Is this the moral thing to do, the correct thing to do?'” he said of filing the lawsuit. “This fight is about a student’s right to engage in free thinking and debate while attending college in America.”
FIRE estimates that approximately one out of every 10 schools has free-speech zones, affecting about a million students.