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UH-Hilo students sue school alleging free speech violation

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.

YAL 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.

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 free speech zone at a meeting for student organizations, the lawsuit says UH-Hilo staff responded, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore.”

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

In response to the lawsuit, UH-Hilo issued a statement saying it is reviewing its policies and the manner they were enforced.

“We will make any changes that are needed to ensure that free expression and First Amendment rights are fully protected,” the university said.

The lawsuit identifies the University of Hawaii System; David Lassner, president of the university system; UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney; Kusano and UH-Hilo Student Leadership Development Coordinator Leomi Bergknut as defendants.

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