Michigan Community College pays $55,000 to settle free-speech lawsuit

Kellogg Community College in Michigan has agreed to settle a lawsuit stemming from the arrest of students who were handing out free copies of the U.S. Constitution on the school’s campus. From the Battle Creek Enquirer:

Kellogg Community College has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle a freedom of speech lawsuit in federal court but did not admit to any wrongdoing.

The college announced Tuesday that it had reached an agreement to resolve a complaint filed in federal court after three people were arrested for trespassing while distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside a campus building in 2016.

Two of those arrested and Young Americans for Liberty, a campus libertarian organization with more than 900 chapters across the country, sued KCC in January 2017 after members said they were arrested after being told they had to register and contain their solicitation to KCC’s student center.

The school did not admit to any wrong-doing but it did make changes to its campus solicitation policy, i.e. the policy which prompted the arrest in the first place. From Lenconnect.com:

During a thorough review of its policies, the KCC Board of Trustees in August 2017 opted on its own to adopt a Freedom of Expression Policy after determining that the institution’s former Solicitation Policy, while compliant with all applicable laws, needed clarity. The new Freedom of Expression policy makes clear how KCC accommodates expressive activities on its property while ensuring that such activities do not interfere with College operations and the learning environment.

The Board adopted minor revisions to the policy, per the terms of the settlement agreement, during its regular meeting on Jan. 17, 2018.

“It’s astounding that college officials would arrest people for distributing the Constitution, the very document that protects their right to free expression,” said Americans Defending Freedom legal counsel Travis Barham, which represented the YAL students. “All public colleges have a duty to protect and promote the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. It’s a shame that it took this much time and a federal court’s rebuke for Kellogg Community College to come to its senses, realize that these arrests were wrong, and finally agree to respect students’ constitutionally protected freedoms.”

All of this started in September 2016 (note: some stories say Sep. 2015) when a four YAL members who were not students at the school handed out free copies of the Constitution on the campus. They were approached and told they couldn’t do so without first getting a permit. When they refused to do so they were arrested. No charges were ever filed and the students were released but only after spending 7-hours locked up. They filed a lawsuit last January arguing their rights had been violated and that the school’s application of the policies was inconsistent. From the Washington Times:

ADF’s lawsuit claims KCC’s “Speech Zone Policy” and the wording of its code of conduct create an unconstitutional veto over speech. The plaintiffs also claim the school selectively enforces its Solicitation Policy. They cite a 2015 instance where members of an LGBT group Spectrum were allegedly allowed to distribute literature without an “information table.”

“Defendants were aware of Spectrum’s expressive activities, allowed them to take place, and took no action to stop them or limit them to an information table, despite their Speech Zone Policy,” the lawsuit states. “In the spring of 2016, Mr. Withers observed a representative of another political organization gathering signatures for a petition in the outdoor, generally accessible areas of campus. Upon information and belief, Defendants did not require this representative of this political organization to obtain administrative permission before engaging in his expressive activities and took no action to stop his expression, despite their Speech Permit Policy.”

So without admitting they were wrong, the school has now changed their policy and paid a price in connection with the case. The arrest itself was captured on video. Part of it can be seen in this local news clip from last January: