The U.S. Department of Justice is coming out in support of a former Jones County Junior College student who is suing the school for infringing on his free speech rights.
The DOJ issued a statement of interest in the case of J. Michael Brown, a former JCJC student at the school who is now at the University of Southern Mississippi.
It says that college campuses shouldn’t be mini police states and that the college shouldn’t wait for a court to steamroll it into compliance, but comply voluntarily with the First Amendment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on September 3. The complaint says that Brown was stopped twice by campus police for trying to inform students about the political club he was involved, Young Americans for Liberty, without prior authorization from the school’s administration.
The DOJ statement compared the school’s regulations regarding public speech from their handbook to the tyrannical state of Oceania in the George Orwell’s “1984.” The statement also says the college has an obligation to comply with the First Amendment.
These regulations requires at least three days’ notice to administrators 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 reserves the right, according to the handbook, to not schedule a speaker or an activity.
The statement says that these restrictions operate as a prior restraint on student speech and contain no exception for individuals or small group and grant school officials unbridled discretion to determine what students may speak and about what they may speak.
The DOJ urges JCJC to revisit and revise its speech policies. In May, FIRE wrote a letter to Jones Count Junior College President Jesse Smith offering to help the community college bring its policies into compliance with the First Amendment. The school didn’t respond to the letter.
Brown was stopped by campus officials twice, once in February about an inflatable beach ball, known as a “free speech ball,” upon which students could write messages of their choice and the second in April 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 and escorted off campus.
The lawsuit seeks declaratory judgement to strike the free speech restraints from the student handbook, a permanent injunction against the school to restrain their enforcement of unconstitutional policies and practices, monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.