GUEST OPINION: College should respect right to put out fliers

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A student at Des Moines Area Community College is challenging the school’s limits on leafleting on First Amendment grounds.

Jacob Dagel has filed a lawsuit in federal court contending that the school’s restrictions on distributing fliers violates his free speech rights, according to the Des Moines Register.

The college requires a 10-day notice and limits distribution of leaflets to a single hallway in the student services center.

There’s an irony here.  We send young people to colleges to expose them to the marketplace of ideas, but the Des Moines Area Community College is attempting to limit freedom of expression in a way that should never be acceptable in a free society.

The First Amendment right to share views by leafleting is clear. That’s particularly the case when a citizen is protesting government action, as in this case.

Dagel objected to  the college’s decision to subsidize tickets to a conference to combat bullying.

Public educational institutions that create “free speech zones” overlook the fact that America is a free speech zone and that designating a specific space for free expression is in fact an act of censorship.

Governmental bodies that seek to limit protests have to demonstrate that any restrictions are content neutral , not targeting a specific point of view.  Any restrictions must also be narrowly tailored to address a substantial government need and have to offer alternative ways for a protestor’s message to reach its intended audience.

The college’s policy fails to meet the latter two tests.  In a free society, we have the right to respond to the day’s events and share our views.  That is undercut when  government can require you to plan your expression 10 days in advance.

Similarly,  handing out fliers in a single hallway is not a reasonable alternative to being able to share an opinion with the entire campus community.

College President Rob Denson told the Des Moines Register that the college administration would have been receptive to shortening the 10-day notice.

“Had (Dagel)  asked, we would have immediately ameliorated that requirement anyway,” he told the newspaper.

It shouldn’t take a federal lawsuit to require an institution of higher learning to respect its students’ constitutional rights.  And any requirement that students must apply for the right to express themselves is inconsistent with the mission of higher education.

Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and in Washington, D.C. Previously, Paulson served as the editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today.