A ‘Free Speech Area’ in Los Angeles
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By James Freeman,
Open political discourse is permitted on .003% of a college campus.
Watching the daily violations of liberty and common sense on American college campuses sometimes makes one wonder why anyone wants to attend, even with a taxpayer subsidy. The Journal’s William McGurn describes in our pages today the mob that descended on our contributor Heather Mac Donald when she showed up to speak at Claremont McKenna, a private college east of Los Angeles. About 50 miles to the west of Claremont, free speech is coming under attack on yet another campus. But Constitutional liberty seems to have at least a few allies left.
Recently this column noted the refreshing defense of the First Amendment rights of pro-life activists by the pro-choice writers of the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Now the Times’ left-leaning editorial columns are distinguishing themselves again by defending the free-speech rights of a college student who advocates for limited government.
Kevin Shaw is the president of a Young Americans for Liberty chapter at L.A.’s Pierce College. According to a lawsuit he filed on March 28 against officials of the school and the Los Angeles Community College District, he was distributing Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus last November when a college employee forced him to stop and also ordered him not to discuss his political views with other students. According to Mr. Shaw’s filing, he was then escorted to a campus office and “forced to complete a permit application” to use the college’s “Free Speech Area.”
Mr. Shaw’s complaint describes this area as “confined by painted lines, on the side of a campus thoroughfare. The area measures approximately 616 square feet, comprising approximately .003% of the total area of Pierce College’s 426-acre campus.” So the school is explicitly exercising speech control over 99.997% of its territory, a feat that would make Vladimir Putin jealous. Someone will need to remind us again what the purpose of a college is.
As extreme as Pierce administrators are in the exercise of their power, the Times rightly notes that they should enjoy at least some discretion in setting the rules of the campus. “No one would suggest that every inch of a campus must be open to leafleting and political proselytizing,” notes the Times editorial. Certainly students who seek to interrupt classroom lectures to promote their political views shouldn’t be indulged.
But as the Times notes, “when a public college or university squeezes the expression of political views into a tightly circumscribed area, it not only undermines its commitment to the free exchange of ideas; it runs afoul of the 1st Amendment. As a federal judge put it in a 2004 case involving a challenge to limitations on expression at Texas Tech University Law School: ‘To the extent [that] the campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the university’s students, irrespective of whether the university has so designated them or not.’”
Perhaps it’s time to designate the administrators of Pierce College as former administrators, and re-accommodate them to another line of work.
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