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Posted: Saturday, April 26th, 2014 6:34 AM HST

University of Hawaii hit with free speech lawsuit

By Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) Two University of Hawaii at Hilo students have sued their school, saying it violated their right to free speech by stopping them from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside a designated free-speech zone.

A federal lawsuit filed in Honolulu on Thursday alleges the school excessively restricts the rights of student organizations and limits student speech in open areas of campus.

The lawsuit says undergraduate Merritt Burch and other members of the UH Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty set up a table at the campus center in January as part of a university-sponsored event to introduce students to organizations. But their table was in the corner, far removed from the flow of pedestrian traffic.

So Burch and other group members walked toward the middle of the Campus Center Plaza and asked people passing by if they wanted a copy of the Constitution. The lawsuit says the director of student affairs went up to the students and told them not to approach students and "solicit information." She instructed them to go back to their table and wait for students to come to them.

The plaintiffs say the school unconstitutionally restricts access to open areas by limiting the zone where students may engage in spontaneous expressive activity to 0.26 percent of the 115-acre campus.

The lawsuit names the University of Hawaii system, Interim President David Lassner and several Hilo administrators. It asks the court to determine the school violated the students' free speech rights and seeks an injunction stopping the enforcement of the school's speech codes and enforcement practices. It seeks monetary damages and asks the court to cover the plaintiffs' legal fees.

The university says it's committed to the free expression and open exchange of ideas. It says it has begun reviewing its policies and the way they were enforced.

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