Of all the rights covered by the First Amendment, the right to distribute political literature is one of the most important. Indeed, without the efforts of pamphleteers like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, America as we know it might not have come into existence at all. These men risked everything to spread the ideas in which they believed — and as a result, our nation has a tradition in law and custom of protecting pamphleteers.
That is, unless you are on a college campus.
Take a recent incident at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month last October, Sinclair student Ethel Borel-Donohue waited until after her Probate Law I class was over (she is training to become a paralegal) to pass out around 15 flyers that discussed studies linking birth control and abortion to breast cancer.
Unfortunately, the climate for free speech on many campuses being what it is, you can imagine what happened next. According to Borel-Donohue, she was called before the chair of her program, county domestic relations judge Michael Brigner, and told that her flyers had offended someone in the class who had an abortion and that Borel-Donohue had no right to pass out any materials in the classroom, notwithstanding the fact that class was over. (I should note that when Borel-Donohue e-mailed Judge Brigner to confirm what he said in their conversation, he refused to do so — always a bad sign.)
If anything, Brigner was understating the power over expression that Sinclair Community College has unlawfully arrogated to itself. Its student code of conduct actually bans all distribution of literature at Sinclair except for “recognized student organizations after registering with the appropriate college official.” That’s right: you need the permission of school authorities to pass out pamphlets at Sinclair, and even that “privilege” is reserved only for groups who are “recognized” under the school’s rules.
There is simply no possible justification for a public college in the United States to ban all distribution of “unapproved” literature, everywhere on campus. And it’s hard to think of a reason that passing out literature in a classroom after class would be disruptive enough to justify a ban. After all, at most colleges, classrooms not in use for instruction are used for a variety of meetings and activities, and nobody is forced to stay around to receive the literature. Yet Sinclair has defiantly stood by its policies.
A similar controversy recently took place at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where literature comparing the abortion rate in the African-American community to genocide sparked outrage among students, calls for punishment, and a declaration from the seminary’s dean of student life that from now on, literature could no longer be distributed without administrative approval.