Modesto Junior College Fails To Learn Anything From Its Previous Free Speech Failure

from the betting-it-all-on-'wrong' dept

Modesto Junior College has gone into damage control mode after the news spread of its refusal to allow a student to hand out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. Instead of realizing the complete folly of restricting free speech to two people at a time (with advance notice and permission) and a small cement slab, the administrators clung to the policy manual like it was handed down by Founding Fathers themselves.

But hefty policy manuals are no match for viral news coverage. In addition to Techdirt’s immaculate coverage, the story also appeared at Popehat, Reason, Huffington Post, Fox News and the local paper, the Modesto Bee.

At first the district tried to hastily walk back Modesto’s decision via this post on its Facebook page.

The Yosemite Community College District’s (YCCD) colleges have free speech areas on campus for activities such as distributing materials on campus. In addition, people can distribute material in the areas generally available to students and the community as long as they don’t “disrupt the orderly operation of the college.” In the case of the YouTube video, it did not appear that the student was disrupting the orderly operation of the college. Therefore, we are looking into the matter. The administration of the YCCD supports the peaceful distribution of the Constitution and other materials on campus, which is why our colleges support Constitution Day with activities each year.

As FIRE points out, it’s all well and good that the district recognizes that the student (Van Tuinen) wasn’t disrupting anything by distributing copies of the Constitution on campus, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Modesto Junior College still deferred by its speech-limiting policies. So, the whole sentence after “in addition” is essentially meaningless on MJC’s campus.

Now that the backlash has hit, the college has taken to an arm of the media to complain about the media. The president of the school, Jill Stearns, has posted an editorial at the Modesto Bee entitled “Media Unfair to MJC on Free Speech Incident,” and it’s equally defensive and deluded.

In addition to the positive event that took place [a school-sanctioned Constitution Day event], a college incident occurred which has sparked hatred and cruelty toward MJC staff, stemming from a video that was aired nationally.

The media coverage does not reflect the campus culture or college mission. The coverage does not depict the commitment to students demonstrated by our faculty, staff and administration each day. The coverage provides a very limited glimpse of Modesto Junior College that has motivated a vast number of individuals across our country to voice their concern through email and phone calls. The coverage creates a misunderstanding of MJC to the extreme.

I love it when incidents just “occur” — incidents marked by the inaction of everyone involved (or not involved, I guess.) No one’s responsible for anything that happened that day except Van Tuinen, whose “nationally aired” video unfairly portrayed those on the periphery of this spontaneously-occurring suppression of speech. No one sent a cop out to confront him or direct him to the concrete slab o’ freedom. It all just sort of… happened.

Stearns may not like how the incident portrays her school, but it’s her school’s policies and staff that come out looking worse, not the “culture” or the “mission.” It’s the policy that’s bad. But when confronted about the sheer ridiculousness of this public school’s limits on free speech, those employed directly by the college reduced themselves to spouting off paragraphs from the student handbook. If this is how those in the upper levels of administration respond to challenges, the school’s mission and culture are doomed.

But Stearns isn’t finished, and despite the fact that the so-called Free Speech Zone was the starting point for much of the criticism, she somehow feels that concept is still worth defending.

Unfortunately those contacting the college have no interest in the fact that we carve out designated free speech areas on campus such that any disruption to ordinary operations of the college are minimized. They have no interest in the fact that people are allowed to distribute materials, constitutions, etc., even beyond these designated areas.

You’re (perhaps intentionally) misreading the criticism if you think those contacting the college about this story have “no interest” in the “free speech areas.” That’s the crux of the issue. Free speech isn’t supposed to be limited to small areas and left to the discretion of the administration as to what speech it will or won’t allow (with advance notice).

As for the media having “no interest” in the “fact” that students are also allowed to distribute materials outside these free speech areas, it would appear your staff is similarly disinterested. Not once was it suggested Van Tuinen could return to distributing copies of the Constitution. Instead, he was pointed in the direction of the policies relating to the “free speech area.”

And as for the supposed “disruption” you’re so concerned about preventing with these speech limitations? FIRE has an answer for that.

That such restrictive policies might be necessary to ensure the “ordinary operations of the college” is an empty argument. According to data collected from FIRE’s Spotlight database of campus speech restrictions, roughly one in six of America’s top 409 schools maintain restrictive free speech zones. On the campuses of the remaining five-sixths of schools without free speech zone policies, one hardly finds disorder and mayhem. Unsurprisingly, students can co-exist with the free and open expression of ideas. They do not need campus bureaucrats to tell them how to do so.

Moreover, Van Tuinen’s video illustrates that free expression can occur outside of the college’s tiny free speech zone without disrupting university classes our operations. The distribution of copies of the Constitution on campus—outside of the free speech zone, no less—created no disruption whatsoever.

Stearns takes a final swing at the media on her way out.

Rest assured that what the national media attempted to portray is not an accurate reflection of MJC.

Kind of hard to claim something was misrepresented when anyone can watch a recording of the entire encounter. That portrayal alone, without additional commentary, is damning enough.

This sort of behavior is far too common. When an entity is publicly shamed for its own stupidity, it often decides the real villain is the “media.” This is the laziest form of scapegoating and often the most hypocritical, as no entity has ever disputed a positive portrayal by the media. Only when they’re still feeling the sting of backlash do they find fault in the coverage.

Fix your policy, MJC. And until that’s fixed, please stop whining about the consequences of your own actions.

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Comments on “Modesto Junior College Fails To Learn Anything From Its Previous Free Speech Failure”

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Anonymous Coward says:

You know this is similar to Bush’s policies on protests where his cavalcade was to go. You could protest his actions but not where he could see them. Instead they had to be done in a ‘protest zone’ which was always out of sight of the cavalcade’s path.

When you set up something like this, at a uni, sooner or later there is going to be a backlash. The students didn’t make this happen, the news media reported I am sure quite accurately what occurred.

What we are witnessing here in this article is the very same attitude displayed by the NSA. Instead of it being in a student policy book, the NSA claims legality as the shield.

In both cases it takes merely a moment to know it is wrong. Defending such a misguided policy makes those defending it look rather bad doesn’t it? There’s a real simple solution to this. If you don’t want to look bad, don’t do stupid things that put you in that position.

SolkeshNaranek says:

Interesting Follow up

MJC’s public rebuttal of the incident is most interesting.

On the day the original article was posted on TD, I sent an email to the president of the JC.

The email was fairly polite and mostly inquired as to her familiarity with the 1st Amendment and the Constitution in general.

I suggested it would be wise for her and the school staff to read the document.

There was never got a reply to my email. I am however, going to send another one based on this current article.

Not holding my breath while awaiting a reply.

SolkeshNaranek says:

Re: Re: Interesting Follow up

I just sent my second email to them and returned back here to find your response.

You have an excellent idea and I will use it if further communication with them occurs. It is not out of the realm of possibility that one of my children could attend that college.

I did receive an “Out of Office” response from one of the recipients, but nothing else thus far.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

What Is To Be Done.

Well, speaking as a Voltairean Freethinker, disagreeing with your ideas entirely, but being ready to defend, to the death, your right to express them, perhaps we ought to pass the hat to provide Brother Jed with an honorarium and some travel money to visit Modesto Junior College and exercise his right of free speech. I don’t know whether he can give as good a show as the late Brother Max, his mentor, it’s been a matter of thirty years since I last saw him in action, but it is worth a try. He will very probably say some things which will hurt people’s feelings, and make them cry.

My old father’s maxim in such cases is that “people who worry about nothing need something to worry about.”

Here is Brother Jed’s contact information:

More fundamentally, the Modesto Junior College’s attitude is stupid. You don’t want to make the place resemble a high school to a greater degree than is unavoidable, considering the paucity of your means. That will only increase the number of kids who feel cheated because they do not have the chance to do their first two years of college in Berkeley, or Ann Arbor, or Cambridge, Mass. If an osprey decides to build a nest up under the roof-eves of one of your buildings, you do not start franticly trying to kill it. You see if you can rig up a webcam, the way they did at Cornell. Well, the same principle applies to sidewalk speakers.

Loki says:

Re: Re:

Part of this, I believe, has in part to do with too much emphasis on the Constitution itself. If tends to focus people on just the rules.

I have argued even back when I was a teenager in HS (over 25 years ago), that before people learned about the Constitution the first have have to learn about, read, and perhaps even memorize the Declaration of Independence.

Learning what the rules are, without an understanding of WHY those rules exist (as well as a particular belief of why a government exists to implement those rules, as well as when/if such rules should be broken), merely teaches people to respect the rules (regardless of whether those rules are wrong or right).

For example, people who believe that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” in order to secure certain rights (among them Life, Liberty, and the pursuit – but not necessarily the attainment – of Happiness) are going view rules vastly differently than someone who see government as some sort of “divine right” for the “good” or “protection” of their “subjects”.

And so, as the NSA, Congress, White House, and other government agencies have proven time and again in story after story, that as the government has shifted from a “service by consent” to “protection of subjects” that not only do the rules changes, but so do the interpretations of those rules.

michael (profile) says:

As a conservative, one BIG reason I can’t see myself ever voting Republican is that they see no problem with “Free Speech Zones” in the US.


I have no problem with making very small areas “non-free speech zones” for security reasons (after all, I can’t walk into the Lincoln Bedroom and hand out flyers as I please). But the creation of “Free Speech Zones” means that there’s a majority of space that is NOT for free speech.

And that’s not okay.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here is the entire statement of the president of the college, taken from their website. It’s just as vague and mealy-mouthed as Mike says — she refers to the incident so elliptically that you know that she trying to hide from the whole thing. She sounds more like an uptight, offended high school student than a college president.

President Stearns’ statement about the Constitution and expression of free speech

On September 18, 2013, Modesto Junior College received a letter regarding a posted copy of an edited video taken on the MJC campus. Modesto Junior College and the Yosemite Community College District immediately launched a comprehensive review of the incident.

Upon review, it was determined conversation between the student and staff was confusing regarding distribution of materials on campus. A formal apology has been provided the student. We deeply regret this misunderstanding. College staff have been provided the policy and procedure for review and follow-up training is planned to further ensure that clear and accurate information is provided in the future.

As described in the District’s official Board Policy and Administrative Procedure, 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. There are procedures to avoid duplicative use of areas. The district is evaluating its policies and procedures. The college and district administration support the peaceful distribution of printed materials on campus. There is absolutely no requirement that a student register weeks in advance and hand out his literature only in a small marked area.

Modesto Junior College and the Yosemite Community College District wholly support student free speech and support Constitution Day with activities each year. It is thus troubling to see this type of incident unfold the way it has, and for the college to be subjected to allegations of censorship. The college and district support civil discourse as a fundamental pillar of education. Although we appreciate free speech, it is disheartening that some of the public response has diverted so drastically from the principles of civility and in fact has become directed at individuals. Staff have been called morons, idiots, whores, and Nazis. Moreover, some communication was egregious to the point of death threats which clearly violates any precepts of free speech.

MJC remains committed to excellence in educational programs, service to students, and institutional effectiveness. The college is taking even this most unfortunate incident and using it as an opportunity to review policy, procedure, and interaction to improve service to students.

I wish to express my thanks to those individuals willing to stand up for our Constitution and expression of free speech. To those who were offended by the appearance of censorship, we again affirm the commitment of the college and district to civil discourse. We appreciate all points of view across the spectrum and support every individual’s right to express their view.

Jill Stearns
Modesto Junior College

Ninja (profile) says:

Oh but free speech is disrupting. Ask those seeking more control and surveillance in the White House. Now the peak of disruption occurs when one uses his free speech rights to hand copies of that absurdly disruptive document called THE CONSTITUTION. Now this one is the true villain. And the Govt is fighting hard to shred it to figurative pieces. MJC is merely following what the greater masters are doing.

be honest says:

Let's be honest MJC

I have a child that attends MJC and boy do I ever regret allowing her to attend there. Truth is that MJC is a cheap college so we settle for the lack of professionalism, kindness, and leadership amongst the faculty and staff. They can make this school exceptional in many areas but it starts with leadership and they truly need some oversight. Communication from faculty to staff and visa versa is extraordinarily poor. This then creates poor morale and encouragement through the student body. It’s about time someone other than me speaks up. Thank you for disclosing the true character and culture of MJC.

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