A conservative college group has won a two-year fight with a Florida school that prevented it from distributing literature on campus.
In 2010, administrators at Palm Beach State College, in Lake Worth, Fla., ordered members of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) to stop handing out flyers provided by the Heritage Foundation at a student organization fair. They also told YAF students they couldn't hand out flyers in the school's "free speech zone," a designated area for protests and free expression.
Represented by lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the YAF members filed suit. In January 2011, a judge granted a temporary injunction preventing the school from enforcing its free speech policy while the case moved forward. Last month, school administrators agreed to settle the case and adopt a new policy.
"The university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas," said YAF Executive Director Patrick Coyle in a statement released by ADF. "This settlement allows our students to participate in that marketplace once again, just as America's founders intended."
PBSC student Christina Beattie's fight with school administrators began when she set up a table at the annual Club Rush event, prepared to hand out literature and recruit new members for the YAF chapter on campus. After just a few minutes, an administrator told her she would have to leave, even though Beattie said she had verbal permission to participate in the event. Since she couldn't set up a table, Beattie, then a junior, decided to hand out flyers instead. According to the student handbook, she could do that, as long as she got permission first. But when she took her flyers to the Student Activities Office for approval, staff members told her the school didn't allow anyone to distribute literature.
PBSC's speech code policy turned out to be one of the most restrictive in the country, ADF lead counsel Rick Nelson said. In addition to the ban on handing out flyers, the school required two-weeks advanced permission from the dean before students could hold any off-campus events on weekends or past 9 p.m. on weekdays. It also required at least two adult college staff members to be present.
Under the settlement approved last month, PBSC dropped any requirement for students to get advanced permission before speaking or distributing literature on campus. It also freed students from the requirement of confining their activities to designated free speech zones.
"Public colleges and universities should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas," said David Hacker, ADF senior legal counsel. "Palm Beach State did the right thing in agreeing to suspend its outright ban on free speech. We commend them for their decision to respect the constitutionally protected freedoms of their students and hope that other colleges with similar policies will follow their example."
Last year, ADF attorneys launched a nationwide campaign to stamp out unconstitutional policies governing speech, protest activities and campus religious organizations at public universities. Lawyers have a list of more than 160 schools with objectionable policies. They launched their campaign by sending letters demanding policy changes to 40 schools in 23 states. The University of California at Los Angeles, Virginia Tech and the University of Alabama are the largest schools to respond to the requests so far.