The problem of free speech suppression on U.S. college campuses takes many shapes and forms. And Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) says it might all boil down to the lack of knowledge of how the First Amendment applies to college students.
“The fundamental problem with free speech on college campuses today is a widespread misunderstanding as to how the First Amendment applies to students,” explained YAL President Cliff Maloney, Jr. “YAL is working to change that misunderstanding through its Fight for Free Speech Initiative.”
In 2017 YAL has successfully gained an administrative reaction from 101 of the 395 challenge events the organization has hosted at different universities. Also through its Initiative, 15 unconstitutional speech policies were overturned and 11 more are currently in litigation.
One of the most egregious examples that YAL frequently highlights through its Initiative is that of Kevin Shaw, a student at Pierce College in Los Angeles and a member of the YAL campus group there. In the fall of 2016, Shaw was handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. Administrators approached him and told him he was not allowed to distribute copies of the Constitution outside of the designated free speech zone on campus. When Shaw questioned the administrators where this rule was outlined in the school’s policies, the university was unable to provide proof of them.
Maloney and the rest of the YAL team offered Shaw their support.
“In fact, the policies do not exist on the [school] website, but rather on the back of a permit needed to use the free speech zone,” said Maloney. “Here is the troubling aspect of this: the zone is not outlined clearly on the [school] website, the policies are not outlined in the student handbook, and there is no way for students to reasonably discern these policies exist.”
Shaw’s experience is just one of many that have occurred at a number of universities across the country.
Maloney goes on to detail an instance similar to Shaw’s experience, this time at Arkansas Tech:
Jason Hammons, [one of YAL’s student members] in Arkansas, was distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus with his YAL chapter while simultaneously rolling around a free speech ball [giant inflatable beach balls where students can write whatever they want]. Hammons was approached by members of campus security. They asked Hammons what he was doing today. Hammons responded that his YAL chapter was informing students about the First Amendment. Campus security exclaimed, "Oh, that is amazing. We actually have a zone for free speech, right over there. Do you all have a permit to be outside of the free speech zone?" Hammons reached into his pocket, without missing a beat, and responded, “Yes sir, I do; well, not from them — it's right here on page 20 of my pocket Constitution. It's called the First Amendment." What happened next left all of us stunned. Campus security responded with, "Well, here at Arkansas Tech, free speech zones trump the Constitution." Because of the training, Hammons has received [through YAL’s Initiative] he was able to effectively deal with the oppressive regimes on campus.
YAL isn’t alone in its efforts to support free speech on campuses. It has received support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based Atlas Network partner, in the litigation aspect of the ongoing Initiative.
YAL’s Initiative is catching the attention of multiple news outlets and other media and it continues to educate and train student leaders to fight for the right to speak freely and to, as Maloney puts it, “combat the college administrators who firmly believe, and stand by their convictions, that they can legislate above and beyond the US Constitution.”