KCC settles freedom of speech lawsuit

A view of the reflecting pools area in front of the North Avenue campus on a sunny summer day.

This week, Kellogg Community College reached an agreement to resolve a complaint in federal district court regarding a trespassing arrest that occurred at the College’s Battle Creek campus in 2016.

Without admitting any liability or recognizing the validity of the plaintiffs’ claims, KCC agreed to a financial settlement – most of which is covered by the College’s insurance policy – and minor revisions to its Freedom of Expression Policy.

The lawsuit against KCC stemmed from a Sept. 20, 2016, incident in which three individuals – none of whom were KCC students at the time – were arrested on trespassing charges on the College’s North Avenue campus. Through their attorneys, the individuals objected to the College’s Solicitation Policy and claimed the College had violated their constitutional rights.

After receiving a complaint on Sept. 20, 2016, campus personnel spoke at length with the individuals who were actively soliciting passersby outside the KCC Student Center and attempting to recruit students for an organization called Young Americans for Liberty. Pursuant to KCC’s Solicitation Policy, then in effect and included in the Code of Conduct, any such solicitation on the campus had to first be approved by the Office of Student Life in order to make sure the activity did not disrupt the campus. KCC has never denied any such request and has often approved requests made on the same day as the anticipated solicitation.

During a thorough review of its policies, the KCC Board of Trustees in August 2017 opted on its own to adopt a Freedom of Expression Policy after determining that the institution’s former Solicitation Policy, while compliant with all applicable laws, needed clarity. The new Freedom of Expression policy makes clear how KCC accommodates expressive activities on its property while ensuring that such activities do not interfere with College operations and the learning environment. The Board adopted minor revisions to the policy, per the terms of the settlement agreement, during its regular meeting on Jan. 17, 2018.

The Freedom of Expression Policy, incorporated into the 2017-2018 Student Handbook, makes it clear that any individual or group can engage in non-commercial expressive activities, including speeches, demonstrations, vigils, and the distribution of informational materials, in common areas on the campus during periods that the College facilities are open to the general public. While KCC may limit the time, place and manner of expressive activities in order to ensure they do not interfere with College operations and the learning environment, the new policy continues the College’s long-standing practice of allowing free speech without regard to the content of the expression. The 2017 policy removed the pre-registration requirement, stating instead that KCC could take actions necessary to ensure campus safety or address violations of other campus policies, such as destruction of property or obstruction of traffic.

“Kellogg Community College is an institution of higher education dedicated to teaching, learning and academic success,” President Mark O’Connell said. “Since its inception in 1956, the College has highly regarded and continuously embraced the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and right to peaceably assemble. As an educational institution and steward of public resources, we are pleased to have this lawsuit resolved and we look forward to continuing our legacy as a marketplace of ideas for years to come.”

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