It turns out exercising first amendment rights on college campuses might be harder than you think, but now students and officials are asking why.
Recent debate was rekindled after student Kevin Shaw at Pierce College in Woodland Hills tried to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. constitution a year ago today. School officials told him to stop because he wasn't in the school's free speech zone. But even if he stayed in that 616-square-foot box painted on the pavement, he would have needed prior permission to distribute during designated hours.
Shaw's lawyer, Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, is director of litigation at the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education. She said free speech protection is even more important on college campuses.
"This is precisely the time when young adults are going to school for the purpose of engaging in discourse and new ideas and discussion," Beck-Coon said. "That's an incredibly important time to promote first amendment rights."
His lawsuit earned new media attention when federal officials from the Justice Department said in a brief that the school policy was an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech. Shaw finds out whether his lawsuit will go to trial on November 14. But it has received mixed opinions from other students.
"I feel like free speech is very important to students. If they can't express what they think, what's the point?" asked Pierce student Erez Ahl.
"I think he overstepped the bounds, like he wasn't in the right area," said Priscilla Torres, another student. "Not everyone wants to be bothered when they're walking."
But it's not just at Pierce. At least seven people protesting Milo Yiannopoulos's speech on Cal State Fullerton's campus were arrested on Tuesday. UC Berkeley had to accommodate student protests in September too for Yiannopoulos and conservative speaker Ben Shapiro. The trend has garnered national attention.
"Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech at Georgetown Law School in September.
As a private school, USC has more freedom to restrict speech. At USC, some demonstrations require applications as many as two weeks before the event. A protest requires permits for every individual present. You also have to find out if your type of speech is monitored by Trojan Event Services, Division of Student Affairs, or some other department. And learning where those free speech zones are located is no easy feat.
USC says in a free expression and dissent policy document that restrictions are in place to make sure demonstrations do not "disrupt or substantially interfere with the regular and essential operations and activities of the university."
Annenberg Media approached USC's student affairs department to find out where students could peacefully protest. An initial phone call, followed by half a dozen transfers, led to a dead end. Nobody had the answer.
Public Safety officials said students could gather in Hahn Plaza, but did not know where else they were protected. So even if scheduling a demonstration is possible, it requires a lot of research, and there are roadblocks at every turn.
The ACLU considers any speech restriction on public college campuses government censorship and a constitutional violation. But a free-speech zone on campus is not a new idea. Free-speech zones first started showing up during the Vietnam War as a response to the spike in anti-war protests. The zones kept protesters from blocking paths and buildings so campuses could keep operating and people could move through safely.
Since then, campuses across the country have begun to remove their free speech zones in favor of promoting first amendment protection. Others, like Pierce College and USC, still use zones today.