Case Study

Student sues Pierce College over free speech zones


In November 2016, Kevin Shaw, a student at Pierce College, a community college in Los Angeles, was barred from passing out copies of the U.S. constitution on campus because he wasn’t within the school’s designated 600-square-foot “free speech zone.” After filing a lawsuit in March 2017, he was supported by the Department of Justice, which filed a statement of interest agreeing that the college’s policies specifying the time, place, and manner for allowable protests were unconstitutional. The case was settled in December 2018, with the Los Angeles Community College District agreeing to abandon the tiny area allotted for students to exercise their right to free speech and ultimately to revoke a policy that declared all land on the district’s nine campuses as nonpublic forums with speech restrictions. Shaw, along with his group, Young Americans for Liberty, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), were enthusiastic about the result and its support for the First Amendment.

PEN America Analysis

The Department of Justice has rightfully intervened in several campus speech cases in recent years, helping to vindicate the rights of speakers against overly intrusive administrative policies. In this instance, the department’s intervention helped prompt policy reforms that have widened the space for free speech on campuses. PEN America does not support the designation of specific areas as exclusive zones for student protest and other expressive activity, as these zones inhibit speech. Their existence enables schools to shut down expression that falls outside them, which may violate the First Amendment. These zones also send the message to students that free speech is something to be corralled and contained, restricted only to permitted locations.

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