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Students Say Free Speech Rights Violated By: Dean A. Radford
King County Journal | Wednesday, November 08, 2006

BELLEVUE — Five Bellevue Community College students denied entry to a Democratic rally Oct. 26 plan to file a lawsuit soon against the college and the Maria Cantwell campaign, claiming their constitutional rights were violated.

The five also have drawn the support of the Institute for Justice, which defends those whose civil rights have been denied by government. The institute earlier won an appeal that allows a Redmond baker to advertise his bagels on city sidewalks.

The college's obligation is to provide an education to its students, said William Maurer, the executive director of the institute's Washington state chapter.

"They shouldn't be forced to give up their political principles to gain that education," he said.

However, the institute is not involved with the lawsuit, according to Maurer.

The five students were wearing red Mike McGavick T-shirts to the rally in the college's gym to fire up Democrats for the final push to Election Day this Tuesday.

Cantwell has a comfortable lead over McGavick, her Republican foe. The headliner at the rally was Democratic star, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who was on the stump for Cantwell and 8th District House challenger Darcy Burner.

The boisterous rally attracted more than 2,500 people.

A professor had assigned the five students to attend the rally. The college had sent an e-mail to all BCC students, indicating that the Cantwell campaign, which rented the gym for the event, was open to all students.

But when they got to the front entrance, Cantwell's campaign staff told them they couldn't come in unless they removed the T-shirts. A college vice president tried to intervene on their behalf, but the Cantwell campaign maintained they had control of who went in.

The students declined to remove the T-shirts and were barred from the gym.

Friday, at a press conference on the BCC campus, the students said they would file the lawsuit because their rights to free speech were violated, as were their rights to freely associate.

In an interview, one of the students, Justin Yates of Bellevue, likened the situation to attending a pro-Iraq war rally.

"You should be allowed to express that you are not for the war," he said.

At this point, the five aren't saying who is representing them in the lawsuit, although Yates has said they have talked with the ACLU.

A statement issued by the Cantwell campaign Friday said despite "misguided rumors," the campaign is not under investigation by the ACLU nor is the campaign being sued by the ACLU.

"We respect the public's right to free speech and to support whomever they choose for any office, but we don't have to allow people to advertise for our opponent in our Democratic rally," the statement said.

A Cantwell staffer argued at the time that the campaign rented the gym and had the right to control who entered.

"That argument has some validity to it," said Bob Adams, a BCC spokesman. That's why the college's attorneys are reviewing its rental contracts. The college wants to determine what its rights are, too, he said.

Despite the students' contention, it's clear from a video shot of the incident that college officials were pleading the students' case.

"We are proud of them," Adams said. "They are standing up for what they believe."

The students who were required to attend the rally have been given an alternate assignment, he said, so they won't miss class credit.

Among its recommendations to the college, the Institute for Justice recommended that instructors not mandate attendance at a particular political rally. While that's an option, the Bellevue incident shows that it "is ripe for abuse," the institute says in a letter.

The situation might have been avoided if the college had informed the Cantwell campaign that some students were required to attend the rally, according to the institute's letter. That way, ground rules could be established for allowing those student dissenters to attend.

Maurer, the institute's state executive director, said its recommendations are designed to avoid a similar situation from occurring.

Adams said those recommendations mirror some that the college is already considering.

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