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UH student files lawsuit First Amendment rights

MEDIA RELEASE

A student ordered by administrators to stop handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution at the University of Hawaii at Hilo has filed a lawsuit in federal court.

Merritt Burch is suing the University of Hawaii System for violating her First Amendment rights. She is joined as a plaintiff by fellow student Anthony Vizzone.

Burch and Vizzone are represented by Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of Davis Wright Tremaine and assisted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Davis Wright Tremaine and FIRE recently helped a student successfully settle a similar suit against Modesto Junior College in California.

“So far this academic year, students have twice been prohibited from distributing the Constitution on a public campus, less than four months apart. That is absolutely unacceptable,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “The First Amendment is not optional at public colleges — it’s the law. Enforcing restrictive ‘free speech zone’ policies that prevent students from passing out copies of the Constitution is impossible to justify.”

The complaint alleges that on Jan. 16, 2014, plaintiff Merritt Burch, who is president of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), and a fellow student YAL member were participating in an outdoor event where student groups set up tables to distribute literature.

Observing other students walking around and handing out items, Burch and her friend walked out from behind YAL’s table to likewise hand out Constitutions and YAL information cards.

A UH Hilo administrator ordered Burch and her companion to stop approaching students and get back behind their table, dismissing Burch’s protest about her constitutional rights.

A week later, in an orientation meeting for student organizations, another administrator reiterated the rule against passing out literature.

Burch and Vizzone were told that if they wanted to protest, the proper place to do so would be in UH Hilo’s “free speech zone,” a sloping, one-third acre area on the edge of campus. The “free speech zone” represents approximately 0.26 percent of UH Hilo’s total area and is muddy and prone to flooding in Hilo’s frequent rain.

The administrator further observed, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore” and “people can’t really protest like that anymore.”

Burch and Vizzone are challenging the denial of their right to hand out literature and policies restricting the distribution of literature.

The suit also challenges UH Hilo’s “free speech zone,” a separate policy requiring students to request permission seven working days prior to engaging in expressive activity in two central outdoor areas on campus, and the failure of UH Hilo officials to adequately train administrators on the rights of college students.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities.

To review FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America, visit: www.thefire.org

UH Hilo statement on free speech suit against UH Hilo

MEDIA RELEASE

The University of Hawaii was informed on April 24, 2014 that two students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging that the University violated their free speech rights on campus.

A copy of the complaint can be found at: hilo.hawaii.edu/documents/Burc….

The University has issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

“The University of Hawaii at Hilo is committed to free expression and the open exchange of ideas. This case involves the application of specific campus policies that were implemented to protect those values while preserving the educational environment for all students. UH Hilo has initiated a review of the policies involved and the manner in which they were enforced. We will make any changes that are needed to ensure that free expression and First Amendment rights are fully protected.”

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