DOJ backs lawsuit alleging college violated free speech rights

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) is weighing in on a lawsuit regarding so-called free speech zones on a California college campus. 

In a sharply worded brief filed in a U.S. District Court on Tuesday, the DOJ argued that by corralling free speech in specified zones, Pierce College has violated its students’ First Amendment rights. 

But the DOJ’s argument extends far beyond the Los Angeles community college. The brief warns of a larger epidemic of suppression of free speech and expression at colleges and universities across the country, and asserts the U.S. government’s need to protect “constitutional freedoms in institutions of higher learning.”


“Free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country,” the brief reads. “Such failure is of grave concern because freedom of expression is ‘vital’ on campuses.”

The lawsuit at Pierce College was filed earlier this year by Kevin Shaw, a student at the school who alleges that his right to free speech was violated when an administrator told him that he needed to move to a free speech zone while he was handing out Spanish-language copies of the Constitution on campus.

That free speech zone, according to court records, measured approximately 616 square feet — “approximately .003% of the total area of Pierce College’s 426 acres,” according to the DOJ.

Shaw was also told that, in order to use the free speech zone, he would have to apply for a permit, and that if he refused to do so he would be asked to leave campus, according to court documents. Shaw also argues that the college’s permitting system gives administrators unchecked authority to grant or deny applications.

In its statement of interest, the DOJ contended that by requiring students to obtain permits to use the free speech zones, the school had created an “unconstitutional prior restraint.”

“First, they create an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech in the Free Speech Area,” the brief reads. “Second, in all events, they are not valid time, place, and manner restrictions because they are not narrowly tailored and do not leave open ample alternative channels of communication.”

The filing on Tuesday marked the second time in less than a month that the DOJ has thrust itself into a lawsuit alleging that an institution of higher education has violated students’ First Amendment rights by creating and mandating the use of free speech zones.

Late last month, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in a student’s lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College. That suit alleges that the school violated the student’s constitutional rights by allegedly barring him from passing out Christian literature on campus outside two designated free speech zones.

The government’s filing in that case alleged that the college infringed on the student’s First and 14th Amendment rights. 

The issue of free speech on college campuses has garnered particular attention from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who plunged himself into the debate last month in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, in which he excoriated the notion of designated free speech zones.

“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue,” he said. 

Tags Georgia Gwinnett College Jeff Sessions Justice Department Pierce College
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