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Denying free speech cost Jones County Junior College thousands

Jones County Junior College has agreed to revise its free speech policies on campus after a lawsuit was filed by a former student.

Michael Brown, who is now a student at the University of Southern Mississippi, was stopped twice by campus police for trying to inform students about the political club he was involved with, Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), without prior authorization from the school’s administration. Along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, he filed suit in October 2019 challenging the policies. 

Brown was stopped by campus officials over an inflatable beach ball, known as a “free speech ball,” upon which students could write messages of their choice and again in the spring for polling students about marijuana legalization. 

An administrator told YAL that they weren’t permitted on campus since they hadn’t sought permission from the college.

According to Brown, he and another student held up a sign polling students on marijuana. Campus police took him and another student to their office after telling a friend, who wasn’t a student, to leave. Campus officers later escorted the friend off of campus.  

The Department of Justice even became involved with what is known as a statement of interest. 

The DOJ statement compared the school’s regulations regarding public speech from their handbook to the tyrannical state of Oceania in George Orwell’s “1984.” The statement also says the college has an obligation to comply with the First Amendment. 

Previously, the regulations required notice be provided to administrators at least three days before “gathering for any purpose.” The student handbook also puts even more restrictions on college-connected student organizations, which must schedule their events through the vice president of student affairs. The school administration also reserved the right, according to the handbook, to not schedule a speaker or an activity.

The statement said these restrictions operate as a prior restraint on student speech and contain no exception for individuals or small groups, and grant school officials unbridled discretion to determine about what students may speak.

As part of the settlement, JCJC has reversed course and agreed to implement a policy allowing students to express themselves without permission. The policy also adopts language from the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”). The college also agreed to pay $40,000 for attorney fees and damages.

Last year, the legislature debated the FORUM Act, which would expressly permit all forms of peaceful assembly, protests, speeches and guest speakers, distribution of literature, carrying signs and circulating petitions. 

Schools would not be able to create specific “free speech zones” and they may not deny a religious, political, or ideological student organization any benefit or privilege available to any other student organization, or otherwise discriminate against such an organization, based on the expression of the organization.

House Bill 1200 passed the House but died in the Senate. 

Perhaps if the law was on the books, JCJC could have saved $40,000.

 

Brett Kittredge is the Director of Marketing and Communications with Mississippi Center for Public Policy.