BEGGS: It All Depends on What the Meaning of “Free” Is

09/21/2013 12:00 AM

11/06/2013 9:51 AM

Modesto is once again in the national news, only this time it isn’t for topping the auto theft list. It’s for a YouTube video showing Modesto Junior College student Rob Van Tuinen being prevented from giving away free copies of the Constitution on Sept. 17. The irony of stopping him on the very holiday which celebrates the enumeration of our freedoms, including freedom of speech, apparently escaped both the security officer who intercepted Van Tuinen about 10 minutes into his freebie giveaway and administrator Christine Serrano, who took refuge in a binder of rules, clinging to her mantra of “... time, place and manner ...” Van Tuinen is the president of a new chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, an organization that claims on its website to be “the largest, most active, and fastest-growing pro-liberty organization on America’s college campuses.” (Disclaimer: Van Tuinen is a student in one of my husband’s classes at MJC, but my husband did not know of a plan to distribute materials.)

MJC seems rather less “pro-liberty.” It requires those wishing to commit an act of free speech to fill out MJC’s “Limited Public Forum Request Form” and allow five business days for “processing.” If permission is granted, then the student or group is given a particular date and time in which to transact their free speech “rights,” but only in a designated “free speech” zone, which Serrano described as “over there ... that little cement area.” Like the security officer, she patronizingly assured Van Tuinen that she wasn’t telling him he couldn’t – he just had to follow the guidelines. Oh, and she’d need a copy of his I.D., too.

She suggested that Sept. 20 and 27 were open. Not surprising; both are Fridays, the one day when students can actually get a parking space close to campus because only a few classes meet. That means Van Tuinen could hang out in the “cement area” and wave at the few students who come within view.

Finally Serrano asked Van Tuinen why he wanted to pass out copies that day.

“Cause it’s Constitution Day.”

“Oh.”

MJC issued a statement saying that it’s investigating the incident, but admits that since it doesn’t appear as if the student was being disruptive, he ought to have been able to offer materials in any campus areas “generally available to students and the community.” Furthermore, “The administration of the YCCD supports the peaceful distribution of the Constitution and other materials on campus, which is why our colleges support Constitution Day with activities each year.” This is disingenuous at best – the law creating Constitution Day mandates that all educational institutions receiving federal dollars provide an educational program about the Constitution’s history on the holiday.

Yosemite Community College District board member Anne DeMartini sees the whole episode as “extremely embarrassing. I’m constantly struggling to get the college community to be more supportive of diversity of thought ... we need to revisit this policy.” She also explained that in the past the college has had to try to balance the desire to promote free speech with the desire to protect students from graphic photos of aborted fetuses, for instance. “We have child care on campus,” she pointed out, “and not all our students are over 18.”

I understand her concern, but the video illustrates the inherent contradiction of “free speech codes.” There is nothing free about them, although one wonders if Van Tuinen would have run into the same resistance if he’d stuck a free condom on every copy. In this age of political correctness, campuses are often required by state law to have speech codes, and organizations like YAL have sprung up to expose them as unconstitutional, and as the video shows, often ridiculous. The Constitution covers giving out not just Constitutions, but also obnoxious material given out by “troublemakers.” Our founders apparently thought that we could take it – that arguments should be won or lost on their merits, and that we didn’t need to be protected from opinions that we might not like.

Unfortunately, MJC’s administration has given in to the bureaucratic tendency to micromanage the law-abiding. One hopes that they will revisit the issue and come up with rules – along the lines of not yelling fire in a crowded theater – that actually are “reasonable,” a word used in MJC’s policy without apparent understanding of its meaning.

It’s sad that the video didn’t capture any authority figure who encountered Van Tuinen and had the good sense to say, “Hey, you’ve got a copy of the Constitution there? Can I have one? Thanks.”

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