- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Two University of Hawaii at Hilo students have sued their school, saying it violated their right to free speech by stopping them from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside a designated free-speech zone.

A federal lawsuit filed in Honolulu on Thursday alleges the school excessively restricts the rights of student organizations and limits student speech in open areas of campus.

Undergraduate Merritt Burch and other members of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty set up a table at the campus center in January as part of a university-sponsored event to introduce students to organizations, the lawsuit said. But their table was in the corner, far removed from the flow of pedestrian traffic.

So Burch and other group members walked toward the middle of the Campus Center Plaza and asked people passing by if they wanted a copy of the Constitution. The lawsuit said the director of student affairs went up to the students and told them not to approach students and “solicit information.” She instructed them to go back to their table and wait for students to come to them.

Burch, the lawsuit said, later expressed her concern to the school’s student leadership development coordinator that the free-speech zone was in an area with minimal pedestrian traffic.

The staff member replied to her that “‘This isn’t really the ‘60s anymore. People can’t really protest like that anymore, times have really changed since the movement back then.’”

The plaintiffs say the school unconstitutionally restricts access to open areas by limiting the zone where students may engage in spontaneous expressive activity to 0.26 percent of the 115-acre campus.

The lawsuit names the University of Hawaii system, Interim President David Lassner and several Hilo administrators. It asks the court to determine the school violated the students’ free speech rights and seeks an injunction stopping the enforcement of the school’s speech codes and enforcement practices. It seeks monetary damages and asks the court to cover the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

The university said in a statement Friday it’s committed to the free expression and open exchange of ideas. It said it has begun reviewing its policies and the way they were enforced.

“We will make any changes that are needed to ensure that free expression and First Amendment rights are fully protected on that campus and throughout the University of Hawai’i System,” the statement said.

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