For many of us, Bunker Hill conjures up thoughts of the revolutionary battle where Colonel William Prescott famously told his men, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Well, there has been another, much more recent battle waged on Bunker Hill that cuts to the core of our American birthright of freedom and liberty. Instead of a militia colonel, the hero of this battle was a young Navy veteran named Jeff Lyons. After serving eight years in our nation’s military, Lyons decided to use his GI Bill and get a college degree. In 2016, he enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) in Boston. As a sailor, like all of our military service members, he swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. Last year, Lyons decided to purchase a few dozen pocket-sized editions of the US Constitution and hand them out to his classmates in front of the school’s student center to raise awareness about our nation’s founding document.
To his surprise, Lyons was approached by campus police. He was ordered to stop, and informed he was violating BHCC policy because he did not have permission to pass out literature. The officers took his identification information and notified him he was being reported for violations of the student code of conduct. Repeated violations of this code could subject him to academic discipline, up to and including expulsion from the school. What Lyons didn’t know when he decided to pass out copies of the Constitution, was that BHCC’s policies prohibit expressive activity on campus without advance permission and approval, and they restrict the content and distribution of printed materials. Once he was informed of this restriction, Lyons and some of his classmates sought permission under BHCC’s draconian policies to hand out Constitutions and learned that they could not even request permission to meet on school property without prior recognition as an official student organization. He quickly discovered that the process for such recognition gave school administrators unbridled discretion to restrict the viewpoint of expression for student associations. In light of this, Lyons reached out to MFI’s national legal partner, Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF contacted me to ask if I would help, and I was more than happy to do so.
The embarrassing irony here is that Lyons arguably had less freedom of speech on Bunker Hill than his predecessor, Colonel Prescott, did in the face of the red coats. And he is not alone. According to a 2017 survey conducted by Freedom for Individual Rights in Education, more than half of all public colleges and universities have policies that restrict the speech of their students. These restrictions come in the form of speech codes, limiting public speech to often small and out of the way “zones,” and by refusing to recognize student groups whose speech may be unpopular with some students or administration officials. But public colleges and universities are meant to be marketplaces of ideas. Students do not give up their First Amendment rights when they step onto a public campus. That’s why I’m honored to work with ADF on cases like this, so that a student like Lyons, who puts his life on the line to defend all of our Constitutional rights, has his rights and those of his classmates clearly defended by our laws.
I’m happy to report that we were able to convince Bunker Hill Community College to correct their unconstitutional policies and bring them into compliance with their students’ First Amendment rights. But Bunker Hill is not alone. Just this week, we filed a complaint in Federal District Court against UMass Amherst for similar unlawful restrictions on the free speech of students there. When I wrote to you last month about the importance of utilizing good laws already on the books, this is what I was referring to. Many of the challenges we face to our rights of free speech, freedom of assembly and free exercise of religion can be addressed by simply enforcing existing law. We can do this by educating the offending party (ironically, this is often the education establishment) or, when necessary, by bringing the situation to court. I will keep you posted on this new case at UMass.
For our families,