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UH hit with free speech lawsuit

By Nanea Kalani

LAST UPDATED: 03:06 p.m. HST, Apr 25, 2014

A University of Hawaii-Hilo student is suing the university in federal court, alleging her First Amendment rights were violated when officials ordered her to stop handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution at a campus event.

In her complaint, Merritt Burch, who is studying molecular biology at UH-Hilo, says the school unlawfully restricts students' constitutional rights to free expression. 

Burch, who is president of the Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, said she participated in a university-sponsored event in January where various student groups could set up tables and distribute information.

Burch says officials stopped her after she began approaching students to hand out copies of the Constitution and cards explaining her organization's mission.

She claims she was told, "This isn't really the '60s anymore" and that UH policy prohibits student organizations from approaching people to solicit information.

The lawsuit claims UH-Hilo further restricts free speech by requiring students to seek permission seven working days in advance before engaging in "expressive activity" in two central outdoor areas on campus. Otherwise, students are limited to a so-called "free speech zone" -- a space the lawsuit claims is a "tiny area (that) slopes downward toward a muddy ravine" at the edge of the 115-acre campus.

The suit names the UH system, interim President David Lassner, UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney, and Hilo's director of student affairs and student leadership development coordinator.

The suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys' fees.

UH-Hilo student Anthony Vizzone joined Burch's suit. They are represented by the Washington, D.C., firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, and assisted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. 

The firm successfully settled a similar suit earlier this year against a California college, which awarded the student plaintiff $50,000 and revised its policies to allow free speech in open areas across campus.

The UH system released a statement Friday, saying it "is committed to free expression and the open exchange of ideas."

"The university has initiated a review of the policies involved and the manner in which they were enforced. We will make any changes that are needed to ensure that free expression and First Amendment rights are fully protected on that campus and throughout the University of Hawaii System," UH said.

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2NDC wrote:
Wow. A "Free Speech Zone" at UH Hilo? Didn't realize they were that busy.
on April 25,2014 | 01:26PM
serious wrote:
Welcome to 100% democrats!! Gay rights would be okay, Jone Act okay, Unions okay, but free speech?????
on April 25,2014 | 01:28PM
9ronboz wrote:
well said!
on April 25,2014 | 01:42PM
DiverDave wrote:
Correct serious. She should have realized that those liberals at the U of H are America haters. Half the classes taught are revisionist history all saying that westerners, AKA the United States, and the white race are responsible for all the ills of the world. Just check out any "Cultural Anthropology" class. LOL
on April 25,2014 | 01:50PM
copperwire9 wrote:
Engage in hyperbole much, Dave?
on April 25,2014 | 06:34PM
Ronin006 wrote:
It’s the Constitution, Serious, the Constitution. It is not the 60s anymore. Liberals can’t let the Constitution get in the way of their far left agendas. The Constitution is being trashed and shredded by liberals, led by President Obama who has issued dozens of executive orders to change provisions of laws he does not like or that interfere with his mission to fundamentally change America, which was perfectly fine before he took office. Under the Constitution, only Congress can make or change laws. The President’s role is to faithfully executed laws passed by congress. What he is doing has impeachment written all over it. The US House needs to move on it now.
on April 25,2014 | 07:45PM
Ronin006 wrote:
It’s the Constitution, Serious, the Constitution. It is not the 60s anymore. Liberals can’t let the Constitution get in the way of their far left agendas.
on April 25,2014 | 07:50PM
1local wrote:
nothing will happen to employees - they union people - can say or do whatever they want.
on April 25,2014 | 01:38PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
GeezumCrow - you need a special place to pass out the Constitution of the United States? I guess the Declaration of Independence would be prohibited too? That's ridiculous.
on April 25,2014 | 03:43PM
itsok wrote:
You go girl! You will get support all the way.
on April 25,2014 | 03:52PM
GorillaSmith wrote:
Wow. The liberals hate our Constitution nearly as much as they hate our country.
on April 25,2014 | 04:34PM
Ronin006 wrote:
Right, and Obama is the hater-in-chief.
on April 25,2014 | 07:57PM
carolm wrote:
you're so right!
on April 25,2014 | 10:20PM
kukui_nut wrote:
This story made national news. Yay Hawaii!!!
on April 25,2014 | 04:49PM
Ken_Conklin wrote:
F.I.R.E. is a wonderful nationwide organization promoting the rights of college students to exercise freedom of speech. We need them at all UH campuses, and especially at Manoa. Professors think they're entitled to "academic freedom" but often deny the same right to their students. Hilo has a "free speech zone"? What kind of nonsense is that> The entire U.S. is supposed to be a free speech zone according to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
on April 25,2014 | 05:13PM
d_r wrote:
Just to be clear, you speculate that UH-Manoa faculty traveled to Hilo, where they masqueraded as "officials" in order to stifle free speech? If not, why bring up either faculty or Manoa, neither of which is mentioned in the story?
on April 25,2014 | 11:05PM
Hawaii_Libertarian wrote:
Per the article, "The suit names the UH system, interim President David Lassner, UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney, and Hilo's director of student affairs and student leadership development coordinator." I heard there is also A "Free Speech Zone" at UH-Manoa as well, so this problem is probably not limited to UH-Hilo. I thought the purpose of any university was to promote a free exchange of thoughts and ideas. To try and ban distribution of the U.S. Constitution on-campus is an affront to every American and taxpayer in Hawaii and is indicative of how awful the leadership (sic) is at UH.
on April 26,2014 | 07:51AM
localguy wrote:
Another of thousands of examples of the totally dysfunctional bureaucrats at UH Manoa. They just haven't got a clue how to do their job. So when the court finds these bureaucrats guilty and levies a fine, ensure the responsible bureaucrats are the ones who pay it. No way should tax payers be responsible for any fines resulting in this illegal action.
on April 25,2014 | 06:48PM
RandolphW wrote:
The University of Hawaii is little more than a joke as far as its national stature, or standing. That's why more oversight of all types is required. Talk about a free ride. A free ride is more important than free speech.
on April 25,2014 | 06:52PM
Ronin006 wrote:
My comments are routinely being sent for approval. My free speech rights are being denied by the Star Advertiser. How do I contact the Washington, D.C., firm of Davis Wright Tremaine?
on April 25,2014 | 07:54PM
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