The Department of Justice defended students’ rights to discuss marijuana legalization on campus in a federal court filing on Monday.
While cannabis may be federally illegal, the Justice Department sided with a Mississippi student who filed a lawsuit against his school after he was allegedly prevented from talking about the issue earlier this year, arguing that the First Amendment protects students who discuss legalization and that restrictive policies prohibiting such free expression at public schools are unconstitutional.
When campus police were called to stop the student, who was polling his colleagues on marijuana reform in April, that crossed a line, the department said.
Mike Brown, the plaintiff in the suit filed against Jones County Junior College (JCJC) in September, said that after holding up a sign inquiring about where students stood on legalization, an official summoned the police, who confronted him, requested identification and took him to campus police chief’s office.
“Some people get in trouble for smoking weed, but at Jones College, I got in trouble just for trying to talk about it,” Brown said in September when he first filed his case. “College is for cultivating thought and learning and encouraging civil discourse with your peers. That’s not what’s happening at Jones College.”
At the chief’s office, Brown was reminded of the policy at the center of the lawsuit, which stipulates that students must receive pre-approval for “all meetings and gatherings” from administrators at least three days in advance, regardless of the size or scope of the event. The Justice Department said in a Statement of Interest filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that the policy is unconstitutional and Orwellian.
“The United States of America is not a police state,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a press release. “Repressive speech codes are the indecent hallmark of despotic, totalitarian regimes. They have absolutely no place in our country, and the First Amendment outlaws all tyrannical policies, practices, and acts that abridge the freedom of speech.”
The cannabis-related incident wasn’t Brown’s only run-in with campus police over speech issues, but it was featured in both the Justice Department’s press release and court filing.
“In his lawsuit, Mr. Brown alleges that campus officials twice called the campus police on him as he and one or two others spoke with students on the college’s open central quadrangle about free speech, civil liberties, and marijuana legalization,” the Justice Department told the court. “In both instances, Mr. Brown contends that he was brought to the campus police chief’s office, and was intimidated by the police chief and other campus officials. After these incidents, Mr. Brown says that he stopped engaging in expressive activity on campus for fear of disciplinary action or arrest.”
Defendants have requested a dismissal of the case, and while the government said it isn’t weighing in on that particular request, it noted that the college “has a freestanding obligation to comply with the First Amendment” and that “JCJC’s speech policies do not pass First Amendment muster in at least two major respects.”
“[T]hey operate as a prior restraint on all student speech and contain no exception for individuals or small groups,” the department said, “and they further grant school officials unbridled discretion to determine which students may speak, and about what they might speak.”
Talking about ending the federal government’s own policy prohibiting marijuana is protected speech, the department affirmed.
“JCJC would be wise to revisit and revise its speech policies at the earliest possible opportunity,” it said. “The Constitution demands nothing less.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos added in a press release 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. This Administration won’t let students be silenced,” she said. “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.”
Betty Aldworth, executive director, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment that her group and other advocates are working toward “the day when students no longer need permission or sanction to exercise their right to talk with others about issues impacting their communities.”
“We stand by Mike Brown and with the Department of Justice in defense of students’ first amendment right to free speech as designated by our country’s constitution,” she said. “Jones County Community College has infringed on what should be sacrosanct despite constitutional protection and numerous precedents defending student speech.”