California College Tells Student He Can't Hand Out Copies Of The Constitution On Constitution Day

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As an American with First Amendment rights, you’d probably assume that a “Free Speech Zone” would look something like this:


The blue on that map should represent areas where you can exercise your right to free speech. Unfortunately, for many college students, their “Free Speech Zone” shrinks considerably when on campus. One out of every six major colleges have designated “Free Speech Zones” where students are “permitted” to “enjoy” this Constitutional right, and even then there are restrictions. In these colleges, exercising your right to free speech means asking permission at least a couple of days in advance as well as having the administration “approve” your speech.

The latest example of confined and controlled speech comes to us courtesy of Modesto Junior College. As FIRE.org reports, a student found his exercise of free speech shut down on one of the worst days of the year for a college to assert its negative attitude towards the First Amendment.

In a stunning illustration of the attitude taken towards free speech by too many colleges across the United States, Modesto Junior College in California told a student that he could not pass out copies of the United States Constitution outside the student center on September 17, 2013—Constitution Day. Captured on video, college police and administrators demanded that Robert Van Tuinen stop passing out Constitution pamphlets and told him that he would only be allowed to pass them out in the college’s tiny free speech zone, and only after scheduling it several days or weeks ahead of time.

After 10 minutes of handing out these pamphlets, Van Tuinen was approached by a campus police officer. After some discussion regarding the ridiculousness of shutting down free speech on Constitution Day and Van Tuinen’s repeated assertion of his rights, the campus cop tells him to take it up with administration.

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[The officer sends out a little cheap shot before Van Tuinen moves on, telling him, "Look at you. You're shaking." This is a common cop tactic designed to both a) cast suspicion on the person and b) assert the officer's control of the situation. The fact that it's a byproduct of the fight-or-flight response is ignored. People speaking to armed authority figures will often appear nervous because that's how the human brain works. It's not solely a byproduct of fear or guilt. It's adrenaline being pumped with no available outlet.]

The response he receives from administration is no less ridiculous, considering it relies heavily on quoting policy rather than acknowledging the absurdity of shutting down free speech on Constitution Day. (As if it would be any less ridiculous on any other day of the year, but Constitution Day?)

Upon arriving at that office, Van Tuinen talks with administrator Christine Serrano, who tells him that because of “a time, place, and manner,” he can only pass out literature inside the “free speech area,” which she informs him is “in front of the student center, in that little cement area.” She asks him to fill out an application and asks to photocopy his student ID. Hauling out a binder, Serrano says that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.” Van Tuinen protests that he wants to pass out the Constitution on Constitution Day, at which point Serrano dismissively tells him “you really don’t need to keep going on.”

So, now everything’s clear. In a nation where free speech is one of the foundations of society, an American in a public American college (founded by legislation and infused with public money via grants) is restricted to “that little cement area” (see below) — and then only with advance notice and permission. Free speech possibly available in October — get your reservation in now!

That 'little cement area

As FIRE’s Robert Shibley points out, there’s really no way Modesto Junior College could have handled this situation any worse than it did.

“Virtually everything that Modesto Junior College could do wrong, it did do wrong. It sent police to enforce an unconstitutional rule, said that students could not freely distribute literature, placed a waiting period on free speech, produced an artificial scarcity of room for free speech with a tiny ‘free speech area,’ and limited the number of speakers on campus to two at a time. This was outrageous from start to finish. Every single person at Modesto responsible for enforcing this policy should have known better.”

Free speech isn’t something you box up and dole out. It’s the right of all citizens. Modesto Junior College should know this, being a public college, but has apparently decided it’s much easier to avoid uncomfortable or unpopular speech by violating its students’ First Amendment rights.

  • Tom

    What? He wasn’t handing out the constitution but a pamphlet by the Heritage Foundation (funded by the Koch Brothers) about small government. This a political agenda not a constitution..

    I don’t understand, aren’t you guys against the Koch brothers anyways??

    • G H

      Source? Link to pamphlet?

    • CB

      From a Constitutional perspective, it doesn’t matter if he was handing out copies of the Constitution or handing out political or religious pamphlets. The government is not allowed to regulate based on the content of the speech.

    • Annalisa

      Personally, I think trying to hamper anyone’s speech is an extremely ineffective way of dealing with their issues. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a good way to win sympathy and followers for an issue.
      So as someone who absolutely cannot stand the Koch brothers or their ilk, it would be abhorrent to restrain their speech. (Now their political contributions are a different issue…)
      PS Before you pick a political side, you should do some soul searching. Being against the Koch brothers is all well and good, but if we embrace all the things we hate to do so it really negates the whole thing. One cannot be for free speech, but only when one approves what’s said.

      • Tom

        G H he was handing out “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution” as for free speech I have one simple comment:

        Have any of you been to a college? If you’re trying to form, a group (which this gentlemen is) you need to go through the process. It’s not about free speech or democracy or anything else. It’s pure bureaucracy and nothing else. The gentlemen states to the officer he was forming a group on campus. The retort given to him was simple. “is it fully created yet?” no, unfortunately it wasn’t.

        I am all for free speech, my family moved here from Germany so we could freely be Jewish and safe from harm for it. Being in student government of a college we must realize that it isn’t free speech that’s the point here, it’s simply college rules and regulations. The officer would have done the same if he was organizing a Mario Cart game group, he took him to the place where he could register his group.

        As for this “speech area” that’s a little odd. At my school we have something similar but it’s in an intensive high traffic area all students and faculty go through in a day. As well as bulletin boards and flyers.

        You can always work peer to peer as well, I hope this gentlemen forms his group. I went to an economics seminar on “freedom” by the Heritage Group recently, they’re very sneaky people as you’d imagine. The first five or so lectures were real facts then they slam you with their stuff. With the same teachers and everything to make the students think it’s real.

        These guys don’t want freedom, they want to make a cheap buck (or a cheap billion) out of deregulation of important sectors of our economy. That’s slightly besides the point however.

        • http://thirdperspective.webs.com Robert Van Tuinen

          It was simply copies of the Constitution. Also, the Heritage Foundation may be crap but they have a right to say what they wish. As for the Koch Brothers, I hear that argument on a daily basis as a libertarian. As far as I know the Koch Brothers do not support the Heritage Foundation because they are conservative NOT libertarian. Tell me about the support given to liberal think tanks by George Soros. The argument that it is ok for my side but not for you is weak and elitists.

          Thanks for sharing and discussing folks

  • https://www.facebook.com/Greenleafstickybud Dylan Greenleaf Stickybud

    Mental note – NEVER hire any one with a degree from Modesto… Clearly its a joke of a college.

    • B H

      You’re a joke of a gentleman. Don’t degrade a graduate based on the administration. But your statement clearly shows you are a moron.

  • https://www.facebook.com/alexandrews1981 Alex Andrews

    It’s just disgusting, the reason freedom of speech is a constitutional right is because of these very people who seek to suppress it, the administration of the college, the college cop, THOSE PEOPLE are two of the reasons those who wrote and signed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights put that in there. Those very people who would seek to make that freedom ineffective by scheduling it to when it wont matter, or not approving it as though they have the right to sensor it. Free speech, and the freedom to gather publicly are important rights that people need to fight for no matter who comes to intimidate you.

    What sucks more is things like the patriot act made it ok for judges to suspend those rights whenever they want. So essentially we have had those rights taken away thanks to lawyers. You could end up in court and barred from using the Constitution, or Bill of Rights to defend yourself.

  • Anymouse

    Somebody’s getting a settlement. And I hope they press “Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law” charges against the admin and especially that campus cop.

  • https://www.facebook.com/treborgear Rob Gear

    Seems to me, the cop is looking to kill his boredom at having a dead end job and acting out the role that he is a superior man to a nerdy college kid. Whereas the admin lady appears to be dumbfounded/frustrated at the students naivety – she knows that the Constitution is widely ignored, flouted and despite Van Tuinen’s protests about his rights – she knows those rights were not meant to apply to all Americans and that the US establishment pays mere lip service to the notion of citizen rights in practice.

  • Robert

    Feel free to send similar letters to the college President, Ms, Jill Stearns (stearnsj@mjc.edu)

    Dear Ms. Stearns:

    As reported in a number of news outlets, MJC’s treatment of Robert Van Tuinen was nothing short of appalling. How does it look when your publicly funded college restricts free speech on campus? When it sends campus police to harass a student for exercising free speech? When a member of your administration blatantly lies about a student’s right to distribute a copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights on campus, telling he has to be part of a club in order to use the 1st Amendment?

    It looks like this: http://www.popularresistance.org/california-college-tells-student-he-cant-hand-out-copies-of-the-constitution-on-constitution-day/

    It looks like a telling portrayal of an educational institution that likely does 1000 other things right, choosing to screw up on something as fundamental as free speech, with your little free speech zones and schedules.

    Make an example of Mr. Van Tuinen, a positive example of a student who was and is willing to speak up and reach out to a generation of students who are being systematically looted of their rights and protections by successive administrations of fear-mongering power brokers.

    Give him and the educational process a chance to succeed by supporting, not thwarting his efforts! Is MJC really that scared of a little free speech?

    Robert McClain

  • John Smith

    Ok so the First Amendment guarantees you freedom of speech. Are there no limits on that freedom? Is your freedom of speech absolute? What exactly is speech?

    I get that with your post you’re trying to raise awareness about the fundamental values that make this America but, you obviously have no conception of constitutional law with respect to the First Amendment.

    • Kevin Zeese

      The courts have put lots of limits on the First Amendment even though the Constitution says “Congress shall make no law.” The most obvious is a safety issue, most clearly enunciated as not being allowed to shout “fire” in a movie theater. But, this case goes beyond what the law allows. It will be interesting to see how the courts handle the issue if it goes to court. My guess – the university loses.

      • Annalisa

        Please look into that court case before citing it anywhere, Schenck v. US. There was no court case involving a guy shouting fire in a theater.
        The supreme court actually used the “shouting fire” metaphor in pretty much this exact situation. They ruled it was against the Espionage Act for some guy to pass out a few pamphlets during WWI. This was the reasoning used. Kind of ate up.
        Also, it was overturned. Brandenburg v. Ohio. For free speech to be limited by the courts it has to incite imminent lawless action. So unless handing out the Constitution directly incites lawlessness, there is NOTHING the courts can do but find in her favor.

    • Annalisa

      Well, according to the Supreme Court, money=speech.
      So, free money! lol
      Also, I don’t think this article was supposed to be a primer on free speech; I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a news article about a current event. If you are really interested, there are all sorts of resources in front of you at this very moment on the subject. :)

  • http://none Paul Hughes

    Question, If you put an uninformed idiot in a uniform what do you get? Answer, an uninformed idiot in a uniform.

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