Justice Department Supports Student Barred From Handing Out Copies of Constitution on Campus

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions / Getty Images
October 25, 2017

The Justice Department argued Tuesday that a California community college's speech policies created unconstitutional prior restraint that depressed free expression, supporting a student's lawsuit claiming that the school violated his First Amendment rights.

Kevin Shaw, a student studying philosophy and political science at Pierce College in Los Angeles, was handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus one day when a school official stopped him, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. The official told Shaw that he could only hand out the Constitution in the "free-speech zone" on campus—616 square feet of the school's 426 acres—and would need a permit.

In response, Shaw, with an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Community College District, which requires its schools to designate "free-speech zones" on campus.

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the lawsuit to support Shaw's claim.

"University officials and faculty must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally," Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote. "Last month, I promised a recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights. The Justice Department continues to do its part in defending free speech, protecting students' free expression, and enforcing federal law.

Sessions has said that, as attorney general, he will prioritize the issue of free speech on college campuses. He specifically mentioned Shaw's case last month in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center.

The Justice Department plans to file statements of interest in other similar cases soon.