February 28, 2014

YCCD: Free speech lawsuit now a done deal

The free speech lawsuit against the Yosemite Community College District has settled, though the dust, perhaps, has not. Settlement papers were signed and dated Monday despite YCCD insistence Thursday nothing was final.

The Yosemite Community College District electronically signed off Monday on a lawsuit settlement regarding student free speech rights, in apparent contradiction to its statement Thursday that the settlement was not final.

Modesto Junior College student Robert Van Tuinen filed the lawsuit after MJC staff stopped him from giving away copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day. In the settlement, signed by YCCD Chancellor Joan Smith and dated Monday, the district agrees to already-changed policies on free speech in common areas and payment of $50,000.

YCCD released a statement Friday saying, “As to the free speech lawsuit, there were issues that remained outstanding until today. Now that many of those have been resolved, and there are commitments that the remainder will be resolved, the settlement will proceed.”

Asked about the Monday signature, a district spokesman said an electronically signed page had been sent last week, but the YCCD had been waiting for assurances from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education before considering the settlement in force.

FIRE paid attorney fees for Van Tuinen but was not a party to the lawsuit and not bound by its settlement, said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley on Friday. But wording changes desired by the district in FIRE communications were not major, he said, and his group agreed to avoid jeopardizing the settlement. “They wanted us to try to communicate things in ways they would prefer,” Shibley said, without giving further details.

The $50,000 settlement should cover legal fees, and any remainder would go to Van Tuinen, Shibley said. “First Amendment lawsuits don’t generally have a lot of money,” he said. “Our goal was to get rid of Modesto’s ridiculous policies, and that’s been done.”

The YCCD board passed the changed policies Feb. 12, agreeing to allow what the district calls expressive use in open common areas at its two schools, MJC and Columbia College.

The lawsuit stemmed from an MJC security officer and staff member stopping Van Tuinen from handing out the copies Sept. 17. He captured the incident on his cellphone. Videos posted on YouTube drew national attention and a flood of emails and calls to the district and MJC, including death threats and hate speech.

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