Student Sues College After Being Told Not To Exercise His First Amendment Rights Without The School’s Permission

Another public university is getting sued over its unconstitutional speech policies. While schools can place some restrictions on students' speech, they can't just carve out blanket exceptions that allow them to treat the First Amendment as a privilege it might extend to students if they've filled out all the proper paperwork.

Jones County Junior College student Mike Brown managed to First Amendment his way right into a conversation with the campus police chief. At this school, you have to ask permission before you can speak to other students, apparently. Here's the write-up from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which is representing Brown in his lawsuit against the college.

In April, Brown and two other individuals held up a sign designed to poll students on the legalization of recreational marijuana. But Jones College administrators quickly summoned campus police because the group hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork — which requires administrative approval and a minimum three-day waiting period before “gathering for any purpose” anywhere on campus.

Brown and another student were taken to the police chief’s office while their friend, a non-student, was escorted to his car and told to leave immediately and not return, or he’d face arrest. Back in the chief’s office, the police chief told Brown he should have known better than to blatantly exercise his free speech rights on campus without administrative approval.

Ah, to be young and living in the Land of the Free, being told by law enforcement that your protected speech needs to be approved ahead of time by a public institution's administrators. Here's the policy that Jones JC has written -- the one being challenged in court. According to this, on-campus speech has a three-day waiting period.

Any student parade, serenade, demonstration, rally, and/or other meeting or gathering for any purpose, conducted on the campus of the institution must be scheduled with the President or Vice President of Student Affairs at least 72 hours in advance of the event. (Forms available in Student Affairs) Names of the responsible leaders of the groups must be submitted to the institution at the time of scheduling.

While schools can place a few restrictions on speech to ensure classes aren't interrupted and campus traffic isn't impeded, they cannot simply create blanket prohibitions that require student speech to be pre-approved. As the lawsuit points out, the campus is large and contains many areas where students could gather without disrupting the school day.

JCJC’s property is made up of several hundred acres and its Ellisville campus has many open, publicly accessible areas, outdoor green spaces, sidewalks, and pedestrian plazas and thoroughfares where student speech and expressive activity would not interfere with or disturb access to college buildings or sidewalks, impede vehicular or pedestrian traffic, or disrupt campus operations or the college’s educational functions. Yet, the entire campus is off-limits to any student expression without the prior approval of JCJC administrators at least three to five days ahead of time through an undefined scheduling process that grants JCJC unfettered and arbitrary discretion to prohibit student expression on the basis of content or viewpoint.

As an added bonus, the student handbook also prohibits "public profanity" on campus, which is about as ridiculous an imposition on free speech as requiring students to ask the school's permission to speak freely. That restriction comes into play in this complaint because a prior run-in with the campus' speech police (who were also literally police officers) involved a "free speech ball" being thrown around by a bunch of adults that administrators claimed was "covered with profanities" during its earlier foray into First Amendment violations.

The lawsuit asks for the court to give the students of JCJC back their First Amendment rights by declaring the school's speech policy unconstitutional. This step was taken because the college decided to ignore FIRE's earlier offering to help it write a more constitutional policy. Now, it gets to defend it in court and explain to judges why it feels it doesn't need to respect students' rights. That should be fun.



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