A student at Joliet Junior College in Illinois successfully sued the school after campus police hauled her in for handing out Socialist flyers
In November 2017, campus police at Joliet Junior College (JCC) in Joliet, Illinois, hauled in Ivette Salazar for handing out leaflets on campus without permission. Salazar, a 24-year-old nursing student, sued on First Amendment grounds. The school recently settled the suit, marking a victory for the First Amendment and a blow against the oft-repeated notion that speech codes only restrict the rights of conservatives. Campus speech is for leftists, too.
In fact, such rules apply to all students, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. That includes Salazar, who had every right to distribute Socialist literature.
The college admitted no wrongdoing, but the settlement compels JJC to rewrite its free-speech policy, train its employees, and pay $30,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the nonprofit civil-liberties organization that filed the suit on Salazar’s behalf.
In a statement, JJC contended that the school “has a longstanding commitment to free speech.” Additionally, the college insisted that its “former policies and practices were consistent with the First Amendment” at the time Salazar sued.
But the circumstances that led to the lawsuit, detailed in FIRE’s amended complaint, seem more consistent with a half-assed banana republic than with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech.
JJC’s previous “Policy on Freedom of Expression and Campus Demonstrations” — a copy of which can still be found via the Wayback Machine, an internet archive — confined such activities to a small “Free Speech Area,” requiring students to reserve the space five days in advance. Only two people at a time were permitted to use the space, and the policy required them to stay behind a table at all times. The policy also mandated that the university pre-approve all literature and materials that were to be distributed or displayed.
As the lawsuit explains, Salazar was on her way to class at the community college’s main campus on November 28, 2017, when she encountered members of the conservative student group Turning Point USA, who were “standing at a table with large posters bearing messages such as ‘Socialism Sucks,’ and ‘I Love Capitalism'” as they chatted up passersby in an attempt to recruit them.
Salazar, whom the complaint identifies as an “applicant for membership” in the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and a regular attendee of the Chicago branch’s Saturday meetings, decided that this was the perfect opportunity to counter Turning Point by handing out flyers for an upcoming “workshop and discussion-based day of Marxism classes.”
A campus police officer approached Salazar and informed her that owing to the “political climate of the country,” she shouldn’t be handing out “these types of flyers,” because they might “start something on campus.”
Salazar accompanied the officer to the police station, where campus cops took her information, questioned her, and told her that she could not hand out flyers without “prior approval” from the college. After about thirteen minutes, they sent her on her way.
This wasn’t the only time Salazar had to deal with Joliet’s speech codes. A couple of months before the flyering incident, she twice had tried to post PSL-related literature to a campus bulletin board. Ironically dubbed the “Free Speech Board,” it’s covered under the school’s “posting policy,” which dictates that all posted material must be pre-approved and stamped by the Office of Student Activities.
The first time, a staffer at that office informed her that she couldn’t post material advertising a PSL coat drive because it was “not affiliated with a JJC organization.” Later, when she sought to thumbtack a copy of the PSL newspaper to the Free Speech Board, a campus official informed her that she would need to fill out a form and seek prior approval to post the publication.
In Salazar’s lawsuit, attorneys from FIRE argued that JJC’s rules regarding the Free Speech Board amounted to prior restraint on Salazar’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment, potentially allowing campus officials to censor her based on the content of the posting.
The complaint also objected to the campus’ tiny free-speech zone, pointing out that the First Amendment applies “to the campuses of public colleges and universities.” Institutions of higher learning, as an arm of the government, may impose certain content-neutral limitations on the “time, place and manner” of campus speech, but even then, only within certain parameters.
To this point, the complaint cites court precedent, stating in part:
To pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment, time, place, and manner restrictions must be reasonable, “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech,” “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” and formulated to “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.” Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984). 101.
Restricting student expressive activity and distribution of literature to a designated Free Speech Area is unreasonable. Quarantining student speakers into a single, small “area” impermissibly restricts protected student expression, does not serve a significant government interest, does not allow ample alternative channels for communication of students’ messages, and is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
In the end, JJC, which bills itself as the nation’s first public community college, came around to FIRE’s way of thinking. As part of the settlement, JJC adopted a new and broader free speech policy, modeled on the University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, otherwise known as “the Chicago Statement,” an affirmation of free-speech principles on college and university campuses.
The new rules make JJC’s entire campus a free-speech zone for the more than 35,000 students it serves. According to the new policy, “individuals may exercise their right of expression on the exterior areas of the campus, and in interior halls and vestibules.” The only exceptions are libraries, classrooms, study areas, and similar spaces.
FIRE called the settlement yet another victory in its “One Million Voices Campaign,” which targets campus speech codes like the one that got JJC in hot water.
But free speech doesn’t always triumph in court. Just ask the two men who were arrested at a New Jersey Transit station for preaching on state property without a permit.
A lawsuit on behalf of those street preachers failed in federal court on technical grounds, but as Front Page Confidential‘s Jon E. Dougherty noted, the complaint might have prevailed if the plaintiffs had pursued a different line of argument.
Still, FIRE’s director of litigation, Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, says the favorable outcome in the Salazar case is a reminder that the battle for freedom of speech on campus affects people “all over the political spectrum.”
Said Beck-Coon: “Any student who values the ability to engage with their peers on any topic should therefore care whether their college’s policies are compliant with the First Amendment.”