A symbol of patriotic resilience in the Revolutionary War, Bunker Hill is now the scene of a battle over the free speech rights that many early Americans died to establish and protect.
Administrators at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston were threatened Tuesday with a lawsuit for ordering students with the campus Young Americans for Liberty chapter to stop distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution.
In defense of the students, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to the college contending its policies unconstitutionally “prohibit expressive activity on campus without advance permission and approval, restrict the content of printed materials that may be distributed, and grant unbridled discretion” to discriminate against minority viewpoints.
The Student Handbook even forbids “students from meeting without official recognition,” ADF and FIRE point out.
In the May 3 incident, college police ordered the students to stop handing out the copies of the Constitution in an open, outdoor area of campus, arguing they aren’t part of an officially recognized student organization. The college also noted the policy requires advance approval for all literature distribution.
But ADF and FIRE assert the restriction is unconstitutional, insisting students have freedom of speech regardless of whether they are part of an officially recognized club.
The letter also explains that the only reason the chapter hasn’t been recognized is because the college has taken no action on YAL’s application for two months.
The college also has provided virtually no written approval policies or procedures, the organizations said, leaving judgments about club recognition to the whims of administrators.
The letter asks the school to respond within two weeks to avoid litigation by agreeing to revise the policies, approve the club’s recognition and create constitutional written criteria for approving student organizations.
“Constitutionally protected freedom of speech doesn’t disappear as soon as students step on to a public college campus, which is supposed to be the very ‘marketplace of ideas,’” said ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton.
“It’s ironic that the college is unconstitutionally prohibiting the distribution of the very document that protects the freedom of Americans to engage in free speech and to associate with one another to advance shared beliefs.”
FIRE’s director of litigation, Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, said students at a public college “shouldn’t have to ask for a government permission slip to exercise their most basic First Amendment freedoms.”
“BHCC needs to take a hard look at its policies and bring them in line with the Constitution,” Beck-Coon said.
Not the first time
In January, ADF sued Kellogg Community College in Michigan for allegedly arresting three students with Young Americans for Liberty for handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution.
The college alleged the students violated the First Amendment and the school’s solicitation policy, which stated that students and others must obtain permission from the school before they “engage in any expressive activity anywhere on campus, including distribution of any written material.”
In 2011, a library in Northern California banned distribution of the Constitution.
In 2013, FIRE sued Modesto Junior College in California, after school administrators were caught on camera intervening with the distribution of copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day.
There were similar incidents at about the same time in Ocala, Florida, and Madison, Wisconsin.
In 2014, officials at Southern Oregon University threatened to call police on students handing out the Constitution.
And in 2015, at Penn State University, students were confronted by a police officer who demanded they stop handing out the Constitution.