The Los Angeles Community College District has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by a Pierce College student against the school over student free speech rights, it was announced Thursday.
In the March 2017 lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles federal court, plaintiff Kevin Shaw alleged that the community college in Woodland Hills violated his civil rights when he was barred from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution because he wasn’t in the school’s free speech zone — an outdoor area roughly the size of three parking spaces — and because he hadn’t applied in advance to use it.
In settling the lawsuit, the LACCD agreed to greatly enlarge the designated free speech zone at Pierce College and to make sure all of the nine colleges have similar processes to allow student free speech activities.
The district’s new Administrative Regulation states that its goal is to “foster free speech, assembly, and other expressive activities, while addressing the need of each community college campus to make necessary arrangements to assure that such activities do not interfere with the college’s mission and operations or the rights of others.”
In a ruling issued in January, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II rejected the district’s motion to dismiss the suit, ruling that the open spaces of public colleges are open forums “regardless of Pierce’s regulations” and allowed the lawsuit to proceed on the grounds of First Amendment violations.
On some college campuses, students and outsiders are allowed to protest and distribute fliers only in the so-called free speech zones. Pierce College is one of nine campuses in the LACCD, which is the largest community college district in the United States, serving more than 150,000 students.
According to the complaint, Shaw attempted to distribute Spanish- language copies of the U.S. Constitution and recruit new members for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at the school. The group describes itself as a libertarian-conservative youth organization.
Shaw says he was approached by a Pierce administrator who told him that he could not distribute literature outside the campus free speech zone, a tiny part of the 426-acre campus.
If he refused to comply, Shaw was told he would be asked to leave campus, according to his court papers.
“When I attempted to hand out copies of the Constitution that day, my only intention was to get students thinking about our founding principles and to inspire discussion of liberty and free speech,” Shaw said when the lawsuit was filed. “I had no idea I would be called upon to defend those very ideals against Pierce’s unconstitutional campus policies. This fight is about a student’s right to engage in free thinking and debate while attending college in America.”
In addition to challenging Pierce College’s free speech zone and permit requirement, the lawsuit also challenged an LACCD policy that requires the presidents of each of its colleges to designate at least one free speech zone on their campus.
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