Education

Attorney general backs LA college student's free speech suit

Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Susan Walsh/AP

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is throwing his weight behind a Los Angeles community college student who is suing his campus, claiming administrators violated his free speech rights. 

On Tuesday, Sessions issued a 21-page statement of interest in support of the federal lawsuit filed by Pierce College student Kevin Shaw in March. The suit alleges that administrators stopped Shaw from handing out Spanish language copies of the U.S. Constitution. Shaw said he was told he could only do so in a designated free speech area, with permission, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The statement of interest comes as the federal judge overseeing the Shaw’s lawsuit is scheduled, next month, to hear college administrators’ request to dismiss the case.

Shaw’s lawyer welcomed Sessions’ intervention.

“I think it’s a very big deal because it’s an important case,” said Shaw's lawyer Arthur Willner. Colleges across the country, Willner said, are violating “students’ First Amendment rights by doing what the district has done here which is establishing these minuscule free speech zones and establishing onerous procedures that students have to go through in order to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech.”

Shaw’s case is one of many across the country this year in which mostly conservative students or activists – Shaw is a Libertarian Party activist – have challenged colleges’ free speech rules by inviting controversial speakers to campus or taking actions challenging policies.

Sessions is a staunch conservative, but that doesn’t make Shaw’s lawsuit poltically partisan, Willner said.

“Whether Kevin [Shaw] was passing out Spanish language editions of the Constitution or anything else is really immaterial here. What’s important is that he was exercising his right to free speech, whether he was espousing conservative views, or Libertarian views, or liberal views, or far left views, really doesn’t matter,” Willner said.

Attorney General Sessions said in the statement of interest that he took the position in part because “the Department of Education is committed to ensuring that “institution[s] of higher education . . . facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas.””

College administrators wouldn’t comment on Sessions’ statement.

"We do not comment on pending litigation,” said L.A. Community College District Spokesman Yusef Robb in an email. “We are fully committed to free expression on our campuses. As a community college district, promoting the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is at the core of what we do, every day."