Mesa minister sues community college district for deterring free speech - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Mesa minister sues community college district for deterring free speech

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Posted: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 1:21 pm | Updated: 4:03 pm, Wed Apr 11, 2012.

Maricopa County Community College District is being sued by an East Valley Christian minister for hindering and deterring his right to free speech, the lawsuit states.

In a motion filed last week, Ryan Arneson of Mesa seeks an injunction to the district's current solicitation policies. Those policies include paying a $50 fee for each day or $125 for each week he is on campus, submitting an application 14 days before speaking, obtaining insurance and staying in a specific part of the campus.

"Mr. Arneson attempted to speak on campus in the spring of 2011 and he found the policy requirements extremely burdensome," said Jonathan Scruggs, one of Arneson's attorneys and a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund.

It is the organization's policy to not have clients in ongoing litigations speak to the media, Scruggs said.

Arneson believes that by imposing these requirements, MCCCD is infringing on his First Amendment right to free speech, according to court documents.

Starting in May 2009, Arneson went to South Mountain Community College and voiced his religious ideology, in accordance with the district policy. He passed out flyers and discussed religion one-on-one with students and other members of the community outside of the campus library a few times a semester, according to the original documents filed in December.

MCCCD is currently looking to make changes to the solicitation process, said Tom Gariepy, a MCCCD spokesman. Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, Chancellor Rufus Glasper was aware of discontent toward the policy and looking to adapt it.

"We have 10 campuses and a number of other properties that are all physically and culturally different," Gariepy said. "The policy needs to be general enough to cover all of those properties, but specific enough to be meaningful."

The solicitation policy is meant to regulate the commercial enterprise on campus, he said.

A solicitor is defined as "any non-MCCCD-affiliated entity that would, on the premises of any Maricopa County College or Center, purport to sell or promote any product, service, or idea," according to the original lawsuit filing.

In contrast, district policy does make an exception for people who are on the campus to promote, oppose or solicit petition signatures connected to any political candidate, initiative or referendum ballot.

"Arneson's standard practice is to address people in a conversational tone as they walk by, and ask whether they would like to know Jesus or receive a pamphlet about Jesus. If that person declines, Arneson moves on to someone else," the lawsuit states. He continued to talk to people and distribute pamphlets through the fall 2010 semester. When he went to apply for days in the spring 2011 semester, Arneson was told in an email from Buddy Cheeks that he would have to follow the district's solicitation policy, according to court documents.

In addition to fees and time restrictions, to gain permission to be on campus, Arneson would also have to provide proof of insurance to obtain a permit. According to the lawsuit, the insurance coverage requirements include $1 million of general liability insurance and, if applicable, $1 million of auto liability insurance and $500,000 of worker's compensation, naming MCCCD as additional insured.

Arneson contacted the Alliance Defense Fund after hearing about the organization through a friend, Scruggs said.

The Alliance Defense Fund is a "legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family," according to ADF's website. It is based out of Scottsdale.

"These types of regulations on First Amendment rights are popping up on college campuses more and more often," Scruggs said. "These places are devoted to the marketplace of ideas."

And while the specific goal in this lawsuit is to "stop applying unconstitutional barriers" to Arneson, there is the broader goal to get "good case law" on the books, Scruggs said.

Scruggs acknowledged that MCCCD could change its policy toward religious discussion on campus, but talking about change isn't enough.

"Good intentions and hopeful wishes aren't enough," he said.

For changes to be made to the current policy by MCCCD, it would have to be first approved by the district's governing board, a change that would take about two months after it is submitted to the board, Gariepy said.

MCCCD lawyers have yet to file a response to the injunction, Scruggs said. Scruggs expects a ruling on the lawsuit sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The lawsuit also names the following defendents: South Mountain Community College, Rufus Glasper (in his official capacity as chancellor), Dr. Shari Olson (in her official capacity as president of SMCC) and Buddy Cheeks (individually and in his official capacity as director of student life and leadership at SMCC).

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