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UH-Hilo reviewing policy after free speech suit filed

April 26, 2014 - 12:05am

The University of Hawaii at Hilo says it is reviewing its policies on speech after two students filed a lawsuit alleging their First Amendment rights were violated when they were stopped from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, says UH-Hilo staff prevented members of the campus’ Young Americans for Liberty chapter from approaching students with literature, including copies of the Constitution, during an event intended to introduce students to university groups in January.

The group had a table at the event in a corner of the Campus Center Plaza, according to the lawsuit, and wasn’t getting much traffic.

Young Americans for Liberty chapter President Merritt Burch and another group member began asking students in the middle of the plaza if they wanted copies of the Constitution after noticing other clubs also approaching students, according to the lawsuit.

UH-Hilo Director of Student Affairs Ellen Kusano, a defendant, then told them not to “solicit information” to students, explaining the university does not allow groups to approach students during tabling events, the lawsuit says.

Burch, who is a plaintiff, protested saying they had a constitutional right to hand out the document. Anthony Vizzone, the group’s treasurer, is the other plaintiff.

Jerry Chang, director of University Relations, said he didn’t know why that policy was put in place.

“We are going to review it and possibly need to change it,” he said.

“The chancellor is concerned about it, too.”

Chang said the policy might be systemwide for Hawaii universities, adding University of Hawaii System President David Lassner is also involved in the review.

The plaintiffs also challenge other aspects of the university’s speech policies, including the use of a public forum area or “free speech zone” which allows students to express themselves without permission.

The lawsuit defines the area as being at the edge of campus, with minimal pedestrian traffic, between the theater and student services building.

“The policy restricting all unscheduled First Amendment protected speech to a designated free speech zone … is unconstitutionally overbroad because it does not serve a significant governmental interest, is not narrowly drawn and impermissibly restricts student expression,” the lawsuit says.

When Burch expressed concern over the location of the area at a meeting for student organizations, the lawsuit says UH-Hilo Student Leadership Development Coordinator Leomi Bergknut responded, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore.”

The plaintiffs request the court find the UH system’s policies on speech unconstitutional.

The lawsuit identifies the University of Hawaii System, Lassner, UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney, Kusano and Bergknut as defendants.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.