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UH hit with free speech lawsuit

By Nanea Kalani

LAST UPDATED: 3:06 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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