Last September 17, Modesto Junior College told student Robert Van Tuinen that he couldn't hand out copies of the Constitution on campus in honor of the Constitution Day.
Last night, Modesto Junior College signed a settlement agreement with Van Tuinen, ending his First Amendment lawsuit. As part of the settlement, MJC has substantially reformed its policies and agreed to pay Van Tuinen $50,000.
HuffPo readers will remember that back in September, I wrote about Van Tuinen's case at Modesto Junior College (MJC) in California. With the assistance of my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Van Tuinen and Washington, D.C. law firm Davis Wright Tremaine filed a First Amendment lawsuit against MJC soon after.
The victory in this case is an important one for free speech on college campuses, but it's only one in a long history of successful challenges to campus speech codes starting way back in 1989. Despite the fact that campus speech codes lose consistently and overwhelmingly both in the court of public opinion and in the courts of law, FIRE has nonetheless found that 59% of colleges maintain what we call "red light" speech codes--that is, policies that fail to live up to First Amendment standards. (And, believe it or not, this percentage is actually an improvement. Just a few years ago, 75% of colleges maintained red light speech codes.)
The tenacity of campus restrictions on free speech has been a source of great frustration both to First Amendment advocates like me and, of course, to students who simply want to express themselves. "Free speech zone" policies that limit free speech and protest to tiny little areas on campus have proved frustratingly difficult to conclusively defeat.
But when students are willing to challenge administrative overreach on their campus, they win time and time again. If there were more students like Robert Van Tuinen, we might finally be able to close the book on campus speech codes.
If you're interesting in learning more about your college's restrictions on student speech, I urge you to visit FIRE's website to check out your school's rating. And for more inspirational stories from the fight for free speech at our nation's colleges and universities, check out this slide show about "11 Student and Faculty Victories Over Campus 'Free Speech Zones.'"
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