It All Depends on What the Meaning of “Free” Is

Check out my opinion piece below that appeared in The Modesto Bee (September 22, 2013), on MJC’s Constitution Day fiasco. You can also read  MJC President Jill Stearns’ very different take on the incident.

The YouTube video of Rob Van Tuinen being prevented from passing out  free copies of the Constitution sparked a national news story, and hopefully, an ongoing debate about “the inherent contradiction of free-speech codes.”

It All Depends on What the Meaning of “Free” Is


Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .

~from the 1st Amendment, U. S. Constitution

The Colleges of the District are non-public forums, except for those areas designated as ‘free speech areas’, which are limited public forums.  The Chancellor shall enact such administrative procedures as are necessary to reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression in the limited public forums.

~ Policy 3900, Time, Place & Manner,

YCCD Policies and Administrative Procedures

Modesto is once again in the national news, only this time it isn’t for topping the car-jacking list – it’s for a YouTube video showing MJC student Rob Van Tuinen being prevented from giving away free copies of the Constitution on Sept. 17th.  The irony of stopping him on the very holiday which celebrates the enumeration of our freedoms, including freedom of speech, apparently escaped both the security officer who intercepted Van Tuinen about ten minutes into his freebie giveaway, and administrator Christine Serrano, who took refuge in a binder of rules, clinging to her mantra of  “ . . . time, place and manner . . .”

Van Tuinen is the president of a new chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, an organization which claims on its website to be “the largest, most active, and fastest-growing pro-liberty organization on America’s college campuses.”

MJC seems rather less “pro-liberty.”  It requires those wishing to commit an act of free speech to fill out MJC’s “Limited Public Forum Request Form” and allow five business days for “processing.”  If permission is granted, then the student or group is given a particular date and time in which to transact their free speech “rights,” but only in a designated “free speech” zone, which Serrano described as “over there . . .  that little cement area.” Like the security officer, she patronizingly assured Van Tuinen that she wasn’t telling him he couldn’t –he just had to follow the guidelines.   Oh – and she’d need a copy of his I.D., too.

She suggested that Sept 20th and 27th were open.  Not surprising– both are Fridays, the one day when students can actually get a parking space close to campus because only a few classes meet.  That means Van Tuinen could hang out in the “cement area” and wave at the few students who come within view.

Finally Serrano asked Van Tuinan why he wanted to pass out copies that day.

“’Cause it’s Constitution Day.”


MJC issued a statement saying that it’s investigating the incident, but admits that since it doesn’t appear as if the student was being disruptive, he ought to have been able to offer materials in any campus areas “generally available to students and the community.”  Furthermore, “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.”  This is disingenuous at best – the law creating Constitution Day mandates that all educational institutions receiving federal dollars provide an educational program about the Constitution’s history, on the holiday.

YCCD Board member Anne DeMartini  sees the whole episode as  “extremely embarrassing.  I’m constantly struggling to get the college community to be more supportive of diversity of thought . . . we need to revisit this policy.”  She also explained that in the past the college has had to try to balance the desire to promote free speech with the desire to protect students from graphic photos of aborted fetuses, for instance.  “We have childcare on campus,” she pointed out, “and not all our students are over 18.”

I understand her concern, but the video illustrates the inherent contradiction of “free speech codes.” There is nothing free about them, although one wonders if Van Tuinen would have run into the same resistance if he’d stuck a free condom on every copy.  In this age of political correctness, campuses are often required by state law to have speech codes, and organizations like YAL have sprung up to expose them as unconstitutional, and as the video shows, often ridiculous.  The Constitution covers giving out not just Constitutions, but also obnoxious material given out by “troublemakers.”  Our founders apparently thought that we could take it – that arguments should be won or lost on their merits, and that we didn’t need to be protected from opinions that we might not like.

Unfortunately, MJC’s administration has given in to the bureaucratic tendency to micromanage the law-abiding.  One hopes that they will revisit the issue and come up with rules — along the lines of “not yelling fire in a crowded theater” — that actually are “reasonable,” a word used in MJC’s policy without apparent understanding of its meaning.

It’s sad that the video didn’t capture any authority figure who encountered Van Tuinen and had the good sense to say, “Hey, you’ve got a copy of the constitution there?  Can I have one?  Thanks.”

Beggs was one of the first two visiting editors, and blogs at

2 thoughts on “It All Depends on What the Meaning of “Free” Is

  1. Leslie, notwithstanding the fact that I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts, and even came to the same conclusions as I watched the video, this is a well-crafted argument that everyone should read. It was unfortunate that the MJC respomse to the coverage, while civil in tone, lost yet another opportunity to welcome free expression and rather drew in defenses protecting, instead of the constitution, itself.


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