In May of 2014, two students at the University of Hawaii-Hilo sued their school and won. Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone were both representing their Young Americans for Liberty chapter when they were inspired to stand up for their First Amendment rights and resist their university’s restrictive free speech policies.
During a school-sponsored, student organization fair, the YAL members decided to use an effective tabling tactic and began to walk around, passing out constitutions to students. This prompted censure from school officials who asked the YAL members to cease dispersing literature, as it violated the school’s
protocols saying, “It’s not about your rights in this case, it’s about the University policy that you can’t approach people.” University officials then sent out an email to all student organizations. It told them to stay inside the “Free Speech Zone” and not to approach students. This “Zone” limited the students to a .3-acre, flood-prone, low-traffic, plot of land on which to represent their club to the campus.
Greg Lukianoff, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), called this area a “censorship swamp.” FIRE is an organization that assists in the pursuit of civil rights cases in schools. They came to the aid of Burch and Vizzone, connecting them with the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP to file a First Amendment violation case against the University of Hawaii (UH) system. The lawsuit was filed April 24, 2014. A few weeks later, UH responded saying they would conduct “a review of the policies involved and the manner in which they were enforced.”
On January 6, 2015, a FIRE media release was published stating that the University of Hawaii had settled the case. The entire UH system changed the policies to include free speech and distribution of literature in “all areas generally available to students and the community” without prior administrative permission. In addition, UH is paying $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and damages.
Merritt Burch at FIRE’s 15th Anniversary Gala
Merritt Burch was elated, “I’m so happy that the University of Hawaii has revised its policies, and I’m grateful for the help from FIRE and our attorneys. Now students across the University of Hawaii system can exercise their First Amendment rights without fear that they will be disciplined.”
Activism reports from the UH-Hilo YAL chapter and others can be read here. Everyday, members of Young Americans for Liberty are fighting for civil liberties and can be assured that support will be there if they wish to take a stand for their principles.Published in