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Oct 11, 2013 02:42 PM EDT

Modesto Junior College Student Files Lawsuit Alleging Violation of First Amendment Right to Free Speech

A Modesto Junior College Student (MJC) who was stopped while handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus has filed a federal lawsuit for violating his right to free speech under the First Amendment.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported in a news release that Robert Van Tuinen has named MJC and the Yosemite Community College District as defendants. Van Tuinen, an MJC student and Army veteran, recorded his entire experience with the campus police and an administrator with a hidden camera.

The student will be represented by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine and will also be assisted by FIRE.

"Last month, Robert Van Tuinen caught on camera administrators who were so unfamiliar with the basic principles of free speech that they prevented him from passing out the Constitution to his fellow students on Constitution Day," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Even in the face of national shock and outrage, the college has failed to reform its absurd 'free speech zone.' Now it will have to defend that policy in federal court."

On Sept. 17, nationally recognized at Constitution Day, Van Tuinen stood outside MJC's student union building and handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution to passersby. Soon after he began, a campus police officer came by to stop him and the two carried out a lengthy discussion. The officer cited school policy of not being allowed to hand out any kind of literature without prior authorization and Van Tuinen cited his right to free speech.

The officer lead Van Tuinen to MJC administrator Christine Serrano. She told the student he needed prior authorization and then he could hand out his literature in a "free speech zone" on the school's campus. Serrano then referred the student to the office of the vice president of student services, Brenda Thames.

After Van Tuinen's secretly recorded video went viral and several news organizations picked up the story, MJC president Jill Stearns issued a statement to the school's community.

"Students may distribute printed material on campus in areas generally available to students and the community as long as they do not disrupt the orderly operation of the college," Stearns wrote.

The school president also issued a formal apology to Van Tuinen and invited him to meet with her at any time he wanted. Her statement, however, contradicts the school's policy, which she stated the school would "evaluate."

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