The Department of Justice Tuesday filed a statement in support of a lawsuit brought by a Pierce College student against the school and the Los Angeles Community College District, alleging policies that restrict student free speech rights to tiny zones are unconstitutional and infringe on First Amendment rights.
The DOJ's statement of interest argues that plaintiff Kevin Shaw has adequately shown his First Amendment rights to have been violated. The DOJ alleges that the college's speech policies amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint that chilled free expression. While not commenting directly on the lawsuit or DOJ statement filed in Los Angeles federal court, LACCD spokesman Yusef Robb said the district backs the free speech rights of its students.
"We are fully committed to free expression on our campuses," Robb said. "As a community college district, promoting the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is at the core of what we do, every day."
Shaw, 27, contends the community college in Woodland Hills violated his civil rights when he was barred from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution because he wasn't in the school's free speech zone -- an outdoor area roughly the size of three parking spaces -- and because he hadn't applied in advance to use it.
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He was heartened by the Attorney General's support.
"I'm pleased to see support for the First Amendment at highest level of government," he told NBC4.
In filing the statement of interest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that university officials and faculty "must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally."
"Last month, I promised a recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights," Sessions said. "The Justice Department continues to do its part in defending free speech, protecting students' free expression, and enforcing federal law."
On some college campuses, students and outsiders are allowed to protest and distribute fliers only in the so-called free speech zones. Pierce College is one of nine campuses in the LACCD, which is the largest community college district in the United States, serving more than 150,000 students.
According to the complaint, Shaw attempted last November to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and recruit new members for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at the school. The group describes itself as a libertarian-conservative youth organization.
Shaw says he was approached by a Pierce administrator who told him that he could not distribute literature outside the campus free speech zone, a tiny part of the 426-acre campus. If he refused to comply, Shaw was told he would be asked to leave campus, according to his court papers.
"When I attempted to hand out copies of the Constitution that day, my only intention was to get students thinking about our founding principles and to inspire discussion of liberty and free speech," Shaw has said. "I had no idea I would be called upon to defend those very ideals against Pierce's unconstitutional campus policies.
This fight is about a student's right to engage in free thinking and debate while attending college in America."
In addition to challenging Pierce College's free speech zone and permit requirement, the lawsuit also challenges an LACCD policy that requires the presidents of each of its colleges to designate at least one free speech zone on their campus.
The lawsuit asks the court to strike down policies at Pierce and the district that limit free speech, and seeks unspecified monetary damages. A motion to dismiss hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 14 before U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II.