Free Speech Now Freer at Maricopa County Community College District

Free speech finally reigns on Maricopa County Community College District campuses following the settlement of a lawsuit spurred by a liberty-minded student.

With their federal lawsuit, student Brittany Mirelez and the Christian legal-advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) forced significant change on the 10 metro Phoenix MCCCD campuses by eliminating so-called "open-forum spaces" and "free-speech zones." More than 250,000 students attend colleges in the district, one of the largest community-college systems in the country.

The settlement announced Monday, which follows a new law signed by Governor Doug Ducey earlier this year, broadens free-speech zones to the entire campus of public colleges.

But the problem at the community colleges involved more than the size of the permitted-speech area.

In October 2015, Mirelez, then a freshman at Paradise Valley Community College, set up a table in the designated free-speech zone on campus along with some fellow students. They aimed to promote Young Americans for Liberty, a nonpartisan group that has tackled government-intrusion issues like the Patriot Act and the War on Drugs. As they handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution, a couple of school officials strolled over and asked them to leave.

"This is a public school, right?" Mirelez asked one of them, as can be seen in a video released by the ADF.

"Right. Within guidelines," the official answers her.

Although nobody was using the free-speech zone at the time, Mirelez and the group had violated a rule that required two-day advance notice and permission from officials at the college campus. In addition, the district required that free-speech events take place only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

"Speech is not free if you have to get government permission to speak," says Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel for the ADF. "The law is clear. The only permit they need is the First Amendment." (Mirelez, who has since moved to Kansas, couldn't be reached for comment.)

The college district began its restrictive policy many years ago, and each of its 10 campuses designated spaces for open forums. At PVCC, the space took up just under one quarter of 1 percent of the 92-acre campus, Langhofer says. Courts have struck down such zones and restrictions across the nation, he adds.

But from now on, just about anyone can launch his or her own free-speech event on any of the campuses, says district spokeswoman Heidi Capriotti.

Students, faculty, and the citizenry at large can take part in the new free-speech policy. Speakers or groups no longer need to get advance permission or to adhere to a time frame. They can set up in any appropriate public space on the campus, Capriotti says.

Some restrictions still apply: Free-speech events can't impede educational activities, access to buildings, or already scheduled college events. No commercial activities are permitted.

Capriotti says the district is "comfortable" with the settlement and policy change.

"It better reflects our value and mission," she says.

The district will reimburse $15,000 in legal fees to the ADF, according to the settlement.

Typically, the ADF defends religious cases. In 2014, an article published on the liberal website deemed the group "The 800-pound Gorilla of the Christian Right."

Below: A video the ADF and Mirelez made about the situation this past December:

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.