Students threatened with arrest for handing out Constitutions

Students handing out copies of the United States Constitution at Grand Valley State University were threatened with arrest if they refused to stop.

Students from the newly-formed Turning Point USA chapter at GVSU were handing out pocket Constitutions and pamphlets promoting their new group on campus recently when they were approached by two campus police officers, who instructed them to desist because they were violating the school’s solicitation policy.

“In order to do that, you gotta be approved by the office of student life,” one officer told them, asserting that the policy applies to any distribution of materials, even if one is not selling anything or asking for money.

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Nathan Berning, a Michigan field representative from the Leadership Institute who was advising the students over the phone during the altercation, told Campus Reform that he finds it “unacceptable” that a person “can’t hand out Constitutions to college students” in a country that enshrines free speech in its founding document.

When the students asked what would happen if they chose to continue, the officer initially said that the students would be referred to the Office of Student Life while the non-students would be asked to leave campus, but then stated, “If you [students and non-students] continue to stay here, then we’ll need to arrest you” for trespassing.

“It’s not a violation of one’s First Amendment rights,” he assured them. “I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment.”

Without conceding the argument, the students decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and opted to comply with the officer’s instructions rather than face arrest.

Berning noted that this is the third instance in which one of the student groups he works with has either been stopped or moved into free speech zones, explaining that even when they demonstrate in a “free speech zone,” they are supposed to sign up with the school and “cannot just go and demonstrate” freely.

[RELATED: Clemson evicts man for praying outside ‘free speech zone’]

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has given GVSU a “yellow light” rating for its speech code, indicating that the organization has concerns that certain policies are prone to administrative abuse, such as a bias incident reporting process allowing students to notify school officials “if anyone in the Grand Valley community feels belittled, disrespected, or isolated based on their identity.”

GVSU also maintains strict guidelines for hanging posters on campus, as well as an anti-harassment policy that penalizes “unprofessional conduct” relating to another person’s height or weight.

Such restrictive speech policies are not unique to GVSU, however. Just last week, an activist was forced to leave another campus, Middlesex County College, because he did not get prior approval to practice free speech.

Mary Lyon, GVSU's associate vice president for university communications, told Campus Reform that the university "fully supports free speech," but must balance that against its commitment to "teach without disruptions" by imposing certain requirements on expressive activities.

"The university requires that groups wanting to organize, protest, or hand out materials register with the Office of Student Life and secure a room, or if a room is not available, a space set aside for such activities," she explained. "This is not to regulate content, but rather time, manner, and place so that the educational mission is not disrupted. In this particular case, in addition to not registering with the Office of Student Life after being instructed of the procedure, the group also used a megaphone causing a disruption and a complaint to the university police department."

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