The DOJ issued a Statement of Interest on Monday regarding Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, which is facing a lawsuit alleging that the public school threatened students with arrest for exercising their First Amendment rights on campus. “[The school’s] unconstitutional conduct cannot stand,” reads the DOJ’s Statement. “It should comply voluntarily with the First Amendment — and soon.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit organization that focuses on protecting free speech rights on college campuses, filed a lawsuit against Jones County Junior College (JCJC) after the school called the police on its students for exercising their First Amendment rights without the college’s permission.
“JCJC, as a public institution of higher education, has a freestanding obligation to comply with the First Amendment,” said the DOJ in a Statement of Interest on the case.
The DOJ added that the school’s “speech policies do not pass First Amendment muster in at least two major respects: they operate as a prior restraint on all student speech and contain no exception for individuals or small groups; and they further grant school officials unbridled discretion to determine which students may speak, and about what they might speak.”
According to FIRE, the student involved, Mike Brown, was taken to the police station, where Chief of Campus Police Stan Livingston told him that he is “smarter than that,” implying that Brown should have known better than to violate school policy by exercising his First Amendment rights without first asking for permission from the college.
The DOJ said, however, that “JCJC would be wise to revisit and revise its speech policies at the earliest possible opportunity.”
“Earlier this year, the President issued an executive order stating that “[f]ree inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity,” added the Statement of Interest.
In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring institutions of higher learning to uphold the First Amendment on campus, or else be held accountable “both for student outcomes and for student life on campus,” by the withholding of federal research funding if they do not agree to respect the First Amendment.
JCJC is a publicly-funded college.
“The United States, through the U.S. Department of Education, has made federal taxpayer-funded grants to JCJC in the past and may well do so again in the future,” adds the DOJ in its Statement, adding that the U.S. Department of Education “has a compelling interest in ensuring that grant recipients comply with the Constitution and other relevant federal laws.”
According to FIRE, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also weighed in, stating that “this is yet another concerning example of students encountering limits on what, when, where, and how they learn.”
“This is happening far too often on our nation’s campuses,” added DeVos. “This Administration won’t let students be silenced. We stand with their right to speak and with their right to learn truth through the free exchange of ideas–particularly those with which they might disagree.”
The DOJ maintains that “as a public institution of higher education, JCJC should be encouraging speech, not stifling it.”
“Its unconstitutional conduct cannot stand,” the Statement added. “JCJC need not — and should not — wait for a court with jurisdiction to steamroll it into compliance. It should comply voluntarily with the First Amendment — and soon.”