UH settles First Amendment lawsuit

Students no longer have to restrict protests to "free speech zones," seek administration approval for demonstrations.

News Report
Will Caron

On December 2, the University of Hawaii (UH) agreed to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed by two students at UH’s Hilo campus.

Students Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone sued UH after one administrator stopped Burch from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution and another told both of them to restrict their protest against the National Security Agency (NSA) to a tiny “free speech zone.” Burch and Vizzone turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which coordinated the lawsuit as part of its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

As part of the settlement, UH has revised its speech policies system-wide to allow free speech and the distribution of literature in “all areas generally available to students and the community” without requiring that students seek permission first. UH has also agreed to pay $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and damages.

“When they tried to speak out on campus, Merritt and Anthony were confined to a tiny ‘free speech zone’ and told by administrators that ‘this really isn’t the ’60s anymore,’” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “So they stood up to the entire UH system and fought for their First Amendment rights. The lawsuit led to a constructive conversation with UH, and ... President David Lassner has set an example by implementing policies that guarantee free speech to the 59,000 students enrolled in the UH system.”

Last January, Burch, who is president of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, and another student were stopped from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution at a student organization fair. About a week later, a university administrator told Burch and her co-plaintiff Vizzone that they should move their protest of NSA surveillance to the “free speech zone,” which was located in a remote area of campus.

Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine filed the students’ lawsuit on April 24. Less than a month later, UH Hilo announced that it would stop limiting student expression to the “free speech zone.” This moratorium helped lead to the settlement abolishing UH’s free speech zones and restrictions on literature distribution. The settlement also creates a dispute resolution process for students who believe their First Amendment rights have been violated.

“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,” said Burch. “Now students across the University of Hawaii system can exercise their First Amendment rights without fear that they will be disciplined.”

“It’s great to see these changes and to know that we can express ourselves freely throughout campus,” added Vizzone.

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. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.