The leader of a libertarian student group who overcame pushback from his Massachusetts community college says the experience helped him become a better advocate for free speech.
“The answer isn’t to restrict other people’s free speech,” Jeff Lyons, a Navy veteran who just received his associate’s degree in history and government from Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview.
“If you don’t have confidence that your ideas are better than this other person’s, are more convincing, you need to work on your ideas,” Lyons said.
Lyons, 30, a full-time student who served in the Navy from 2008 to 2016, said Bunker Hill Community College officials resisted last spring when he and friends first attempted to start a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty on campus.
“I sent an email and requested a table and wanted to invite a speaker and they told us, ‘Oh, you can’t do that until you are a recognized student group,’” Lyons said. “So I asked them … , ‘How do I go about doing all that?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, get a copy of your charter.’”
After months of no follow-up from the school administration, Lyons said, he and friends thought they didn’t “really need to ask permission to conduct activities of the First Amendment on campus,” so they decided to hand out copies of the Constitution on the school’s concourse.
“Within about 15 minutes, the [campus] police came and told us that we are not allowed to hand out literature of any kind anywhere on campus, even if it is the Constitution. And we knew that was … a rule that they had, and we’re like, ‘This is ridiculous,’ so we wound up challenging those policies [during] the summertime,” Lyons said.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a faith-based legal aid group, worked with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends civil liberties on campus, to tell Bunker Hill Community College that students’ rights had been violated.
“In response, the college acknowledged that it ‘should not have directed members of Young Americans for Liberty to stop distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution in an open, outdoor area on campus … ,’” Alliance Defending Freedom wrote in a blog post. “The college also agreed to ensure that “there is no blanket ban on student rights to distribute materials on campus or to engage in spontaneous speech absent pre-approval.”
Lyons said school policy dictated that new student groups had to be registered before they could speak out or hand out pamphlets and that groups had to reserve a table and stay behind it, “and you couldn’t talk to anybody unless they talked to you.”
“So it was pretty egregious,” he said.
The Navy veteran said the college changed its policy and approved his Young Americans for Liberty chapter last fall. He currently is the chapter president.
In his experience, Lyons said, it’s “really not the students” but the school administration that is liberal.
The Daily Signal requested comment from Bunker Hill Community College, but did not receive a reply by publication deadline.
Lyons is among young Americans participating in the White House’s “Generation Next” conference for millennials, scheduled Thursday afternoon at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
The gathering will focus on jobs, the opioid drug crisis, and free speech on campus, and include appearances by President Donald Trump and first daughter Ivanka Trump.
Lyons grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts. His father is an exterminator, his mother a cashier.
He became interested and involved in politics, Lyons said, after realizing his values won’t be upheld if he isn’t fighting for them.
“As a kid, I was definitely apathetic to politics in the way that most kids these days [are], for the most part. If you don’t get involved in politics, somebody else will, and you are not going to like what they are going to do.”
His dislike of big government also fueled his interest.
“I got into politics because after I had been serving my country for some time, I realized there were better ways to do things and better ways to fight to defend life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Lyons said, adding:
I realized that big government was full of bureaucracy and red tape that not only undermined the effectiveness of our military to do their job, but created massive amounts of wasteful spending. Not to mention the loss of invaluable life of our best men and women [who are] fighting wars that don’t make our country more safe, but foreign entanglements that make us less safe. Support the troops by bringing them home.
Lyons has volunteered on the campaigns of candidates running for state Senate and Congress.
Lyons served as an aviation electrician’s mate and petty officer first class during his eight years in the Navy.
He says he worked on H-60 combat search and rescue helicopters in support of the war on terror in operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and New Dawn. He also was part of Operation Tomodachi, helping provide disaster relief after the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan on March 11, 2011.
The military has become too bureaucratic, Lyons said.
“Serving in the military is like living under socialism, and considering the government’s track record, we should not let our government run our lives like they run the military, the DMV, or the post office,” he said. “It’s all run slow, inefficient, and wasteful.”
As a libertarian, Lyons said, he wants to work to ensure that government does not exceed its constitutional authority and balance of powers.
“They need to just start focusing on what is important, and that’s our rights and making sure that the government works for the people.”