The Justice Department has filed a Statement of Interest in a federal lawsuit based in Mississippi. The suit was brought by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on behalf of J. Michael Brown, a former student, against Jones County Junior College, a public institution of higher learning.
J. Michael Brown, who is now a student at Southern Miss, according to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.
According to the college’s policies campus administrators are required to pre-approve all “meetings or gatherings.” Mr. Brown alleged in the suit that college officials called the campus police on him when he sought to engage on campus with fellow students about topics such as free speech and another time from polling students regarding marijuana legislation.
In both instances, Mr. Brown said that he was brought to the campus police chief’s office, and was intimidated by the police chief and other campus officials. After these incidents, Mr. Brown says that he stopped engaging in expressive activity on campus for fear of disciplinary action or arrest.
“The United States of America is not a police state,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Repressive speech codes are the indecent hallmark of despotic, totalitarian regimes. 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.”
“Unconstitutional restrictions on our first freedoms to speak and assemble directly threaten our liberty as Americans,” said United States Attorney Mike Hurst for the Southern District of Mississippi. “While some may disagree with the content of one’s speech, we should all be fighting for everyone’s Constitutional right to speak. I pray JCJC will do the right thing, change its policies to comply with the U.S. Constitution, and encourage its students to speak and assemble throughout our free state.”
“This is yet another concerning example of students encountering limits on what, when, where, and how they learn,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “This is happening far too often on our nation’s campuses. This Administration won’t let students be silenced. We stand with their right to speak and with their right to learn truth through the free exchange of ideas—particularly those with which they might disagree.”
JCJC regulations require students to schedule all meetings and gatherings on campus with their college administrator. Officials also reserve the right to schedule or not schedule those requested activities. There seem to be no exceptions to these regulations. Violations of any of the school’s policies can be grounds for discipline, including expulsion.
The government’s Statement of Interest points to Supreme Court case law explaining that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities. While Jones County Junior College’s “extreme preconditions to speech might not be out of place in Oceania, the fictional dystopian superstate in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the Statement of Interest explains, “[t]he First Amendment to the United States Constitution . . . ensures that preconditions like these have no place in the United States of America.”