The Free Speech “Porch” at Tarrant County College vs. the U.S. Constitution

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As the Associated Press reported  yesterday (h/t Inside Higher Ed), an attorney affilated with FIRE filed a lawsuit on behalf of  the two students at Tarrant County College challenging onerous speech restrictions on campus.

The students, Clayton Smith and John Schwertz Jr., wanted to participate in a nationwide demonstration next week known as an “empty holster protest,” which advocates for concealed carry on college campuses.  (ADF takes no position on this issue)  But school officials have limited the protest to the tiny “free speech zone” on the front porch of the student center.  The students are also prohibited from handing out fliers anywhere on campus except behind a table on the porch, according to the complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.  Administrators also told the students that they could not wear empty holsters on campus, basing their decision on their right to control the time, place and manner of speech on campus.  Memo to TCC: regulating the time, place or manner of speech does not give you the right to censor speech altogether, and time, place and manner restrictions on a college campus must meet strict criteria in order to comply with the First Amendment.  Simply deciding that you don’t like the students’ protest and disallowing it for that reason violates the Constitution.

TCC  policies also require students to apply for a permit before any expression may occur on campus–a classic prior restraint.  Prior restraints are presumptively unconstitutional, and a policy requiring students to get permission before they may engage in any expression on campus is no exception.

 The free speech aspects of this case remind me of one that the ADF Center for Academic Freedom litigated against the Yuba Community College District last year on behalf of Ryan Dozier, who was threatened with expulsion by the campus police and the college president  if he continued to engage in speech on campus without a permit.  (The case was named Academia’s Number One Abuse of 2008 by Young America’s Foundation).  The policies there required a student to apply for a permit 14 days in advance, and limited speech on campus to one small area on campus during only one hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays.   

Thankfully, YCCD officials quickly changed their policies to comply with the Constitution and settled the case, but one wonders if TCC officials will do the same, since they claim that their policies are “practical, enforceable and aligned with state and federal laws.”  Federal law on these issues has been clear for quite some time, so it is difficult to understand why so many colleges continue to maintain policies that clearly violate the First Amendment.  It seems the only way some schools will learn is through litigation—and through the courage of students like Ryan, Clayton and John, who are  brave enough to stand up for their rights on campus.

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