A college student launched a lawsuit on Monday against the state community college he is attending over the school’s restrictions on his ability to hand out pro-life flyers, claiming that the restrictions violate his First Amendment right to free speech.
Spencer Anderson started a pro-life group at Columbus State Community College in Ohio and sought to distribute flyers to other students about the group at the end of June.
After checking with the college’s administration, Anderson learned that he could only hand out the fliers to students in one of two “free speech zones” assigned to him by the administration. The school’s “solicitation policy” requires 48 hours notice as well, and the student can only use the free speech zone if another student or group has not reserved it.
“Through the permitting process, the college retains unfettered discretion to determine whether students may speak at all,” the complaint says. “These college policies and practices chill protected student speech and disable the ability of students to speak on campus about recent and unfolding events.”
Anderson wanted to hand out his flyers in more heavily trafficked areas of campus, such as the dormitories, but the school would not let him.
The school maintains the “solicitation policy” because “when a student hands out a flyer on campus, the college no longer considers him a student but considers him an ‘activist,’” a school administrator told Anderson, according to the complaint.
“It’s an extremely oppressive policy that prevents students from engaging in free speech in the quintessential marketplace of ideas,” said Anderson’s lawyer David Hacker, who works for the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Anderson has also seen other groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), passing out information outside of the free speech zones, Hacker said, leading him to conclude that the administration is not uniformly enforcing the policy.
Columbus State refused to comment on the lawsuit.
“Columbus State's policies and practices support the free exchange of ideas and opinions of our students, employees, and visitors to our campuses,” Columbus State said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing the legal action and have no further comment on the allegations at this time.”
Anderson’s lawsuit was filed in the same court that struck down a similar free speech zone at the University of Cincinnati, Hacker noted.
“The problem with free speech zones is that first, in the most extreme form, they are wildly unconstitutional,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE coordinated the lawsuit against the University of Cincinnati, among other suits.
Beyond constitutional issues, free speech zones pose problems for the health of society, Lukianoff argued.
“They teach students the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society. That’s something that I can’t say enough,” he said. “That’s training an entire generation to be very deferential to authority.”
Such a zone also teaches individuals to “think like censors,” he argued. Instead of learning to interact with ideas they do not like, free speech zones teach students that they should try to avoid opposing ideas.
While the origin of free speech zones is murky, they likely began as areas similar to “Speaker’s Corner” in London, where free speech was always permitted, Lukianoff said.
At some point these zones shifted from a place where free speech was always permitted to the only place where free speech is ever permitted, he noted.
Students and groups have launched dozens of lawsuits against free speech zones, but college administrators keep implementing them, Lukianoff said.
“They just keep popping up over and over again,” he said.