California college bars student from handing out copies of Constitution
September 19, 2013
The Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but don’t try to pass out copies of it at Modesto Junior College in California.
A student at the school who tried to pass out pocket-size pamphlets of the very document that memorializes our rights got shut down on Sept. 17 – a date also known as Constitution Day. Campus authorities told Robert Van Tuinen, who caught the whole thing on videotape, he could only pass out the free documents at a tiny designated spot on campus, and only then if he scheduled it several days in advance.
“Watching the video is a combination of depressing and nauseating, to see what rigamarole students have to go through to express,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has taken on campus speech codes around the nation.
Van Tuinen, who said he’d read up on the school’s regulations and expected to get chased away from outside the student center, went to FIRE with the video. The foundation penned an email letter to the school’s administration on Van Tuinen’s behalf early Thursday, but Shibley said there had been no response later in the day.
“Watching the video is a combination of depressing and nauseating, to see what rigamarole students have to go through to express."
- Robert Shibley, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Several messages left at the school, including one to President Jill Stearns, were not returned.
In the video, Van Tuinen is confronted by an unidentified campus police officer within minutes of passing out the pamphlets. When he protests, he is told “there are rules.”
“But do you know what this is?” he asks. “What are the rules? Why are the rules tied to my free speech?”
Van Tuinen explains that he wants to start an organization called Young Americans for Liberty.
“That’s fine, but if you’re going to start an organization like that you have to go through the rigamarole,” the police officer tells him.
Eventually, the police officer escorts Van Tuinen into an administrative office, where an unidentified woman shows him a binder with rules she says govern free speech on campus. She explains that there is a designated place “in front of the student center, in that little cement area,” where free expression is allowed, but then notes that two people are already using it.
“You’d have to wait,” she says. “You could go on (Sept.) 20th, the 27th or you can go into October.”
Eventually is advised to make an appointment with Brenda Thames, vice president of student services, who can explain the policy. Thames did not return calls for comment.
Shibley said he was angered by the video, but not surprised.
“One of the revealing things about this particular case is what students have to go through just to express themselves on campus,” Shibley said.
He said the very idea of speech codes on campus ought to be troubling to Americans.
“They are imposed in an attempt to sanitize the public space of anything that might offend somebody,” he said. “The fact is, no school specifically needs a speech code. They have the ability keep order on campus . Of people are too loud, harassing people, or blocking traffic they have the means to address that.”