A Mississippi college student who was disciplined for bringing a “free speech” beach ball to campus has lined up a powerful ally: the Trump administration.
The Justice Department has weighed in on behalf of a lawsuit filed by J. Michael Brown alleging that Jones County Junior College violated his First Amendment rights by enforcing its policy requiring pre-approval of any student “meeting or gathering.”
After filing a 14-page “Statement of Interest,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the administration “won’t let students be silenced,” while Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband declared that the “United States is not a police state.”
“Repressive speech codes are the indecent hallmark of despotic, totalitarian regimes,” Mr. Dreiband said in a statement. “They have absolutely no place in our country, and the First Amendment outlaws all tyrannical policies, practices, and acts that abridge the freedom of speech.”
Mr. Brown, who no longer attends the junior college in Ellisville, said he was hauled to the campus police office twice for seeking to recruit students earlier this year for the school’s Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter, which he founded.
In February, he was reprimanded for inviting students on the campus quadrangle to write messages on a “free speech ball.” Two months later, he and his girlfriend were taken to the police chief’s office for displaying a sign inviting students to share their views on marijuana legalization and passing out pocket-sized Constitutions, according to the complaint.
In its handbook, the two-year college requires that student meetings and gatherings conducted on campus “must be scheduled with the President or Vice President of Student Affairs at least 72 hours in advance of the event.”
“Such extreme preconditions to speech might not be out of place in Oceania, the fictional dystopian superstate in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” said the federal Statement of Interest. “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, however, ensures that preconditions like these have no place in the United States of America.”
Jones County Junior College, which has filed a motion to dismiss certain claims, argued that the federal government made its statement without hearing the college’s side of the story.
“Because discovery has not yet been conducted, the only alleged facts in the record come from the unproven statements contained in the plaintiffs’ complaint,” the college said in a press release. “The Statement of Interest broadly accepts those allegations and the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.”
The college also said that its goal “has always been to ensure that all students have equal and safe access to an environment free from hate speech; racial, gender, national origin, religious affiliation; and disability discrimination.”
In the lawsuit filed in September, Mr. Brown said he stopped trying to recruit students for the YAL for fear of disciplinary action, while the community college argued that “no harm was done to the plaintiff by the College.”
In March, President Trump, spurred by conservatives who say their views have been muzzled, signed an executive order requiring universities and colleges to protect free speech on campuses or risk federal research funding.