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Were Kellogg Community College students violating school policy, or did college officials violate the students’ free speech when they were talking on campus to fellow classmates about a student libertarian group, passing out the constitution, then jailed?

That is the question posed in a federal lawsuit filed against KCC on Wednesday by the Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Young American for Liberty at the Battle Creek college. The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

According to the complaint, KCC students Michelle Gregoire and Brandon Withers were attempting to pass out pocket-size copies of the U.S. Constitution in September outside the Binda Performing Arts Center, but college officials told them to stop because they had not first obtained a permit.

The school’s solicitation policy requires students to obtain permission from the school before they engage in expressive activity on campus and only in one location, according to the lawsuit.

When Gregoire, Withers and three others tried to engage interested students in talks about freedom and liberty on campus, the suit says college officials claim they were “impeding students’ access to education, even though they were not blocking sidewalks, impeding access to buildings, or pursuing students who were not willing to converse.”

Three students were arrested and charged with trespassing and jailed after they told college officials they were going to continue to exercise their First Amendment rights.

The college took these actions because of the content and viewpoint of the students, the suit alleges.

“Unfortunately, restricting free speech on public university campuses has become the new norm,” Cliff Maloney Jr., YAL executive director, said in a statement. “In response, YAL has launched the national Fight for Free Speech campaign to promote our Bill of Rights and the ideals of civil liberties. Historically, universities have served as a beacon of intellectual thought and we cannot let these open discussions become stifled. We are thankful to have the support of ADF as we fight against these unconstitutional and restrictive policies.”

Eric J. Greene, director of KCC public information and marketing, said in an email the suit has not yet been thoroughly reviewed by the college.

“The college, which takes seriously any allegation that one’s freedom of expression has been violated, will address this matter through legal counsel,” Greene said.

Named in the suit individually and in their official capacity were the college’s seven board of trustees members; KCC President Mark O’Connell; Kay Keck, vice president for student and community services; Terah Zaremba, dean of student services; Drew Hutchinson, manager of student life; and Harold West, chief of public safety and director of student relations.

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com

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