Free-speech zones frustrate students


First Amendent concerns raised in suits





Free-speech zone policies have come under fire at two universities this spring, and national civil rights organizations including The Rutherford Institute and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education are taking notice.

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\n The Rutherford Institute filed a complaint against West Virginia University in federal court on behalf of students at the school, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. The lawsuit challenges a new university policy instituted on a temporary basis that limits demonstrations of more than 15 people to special free-expression zones.

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\n The areas are supposed to be used for protests, demonstrations and peaceful dissent of any kind that will draw a crowd of more than 15 people. If more than 50 people are anticipated, the group must make reservations with the university for one of the zones, and hold the demonstration between 8:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m.

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\n ''In effect, this free-speech zone policy gives university administrators the authority to permit or deny student expression based solely on their personal opinion of the particular message or viewpoint,'' said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

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\n The proposed changes stem from questions that were raised about the previous policy that dated back to the 1960s. A group of faculty members formed the West Virginia University Free Speech Consortium to question the policy while expressing concern that political correctness could stifle intellectual diversity.

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\n At the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater a new policy on free speech had tempers rising, so much that the policy was temporarily rescinded until the campus community could look it over.

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\n Among the rules included in the new policy were broad guidelines restricting signs and posters on campus and a new rule that would require 24-hour notice before protests could be held. The new rules also designated certain areas of campus as ''free-speech areas.''

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\n Barbara C. Jones, assistant chancellor for student affairs, said the university redrafted the policy after concerns were raised, but has yet to make it official.

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\n A federal district judge granted a preliminary injunction against the University of Houston's speech policy in June, saying it was a form of prior restraint and had the potential for suppressing a particular point of view.

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\n Jeanne Tullos, president of the Pro-Life Cougars, questioned the policy after the student organization was prohibited from using campus space to display an exhibit. The group had displayed the same exhibit earlier the same year.

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\n The university has put a new policy on free speech in place, but the group may challenge it as unconstitutional as well.


CASE: Tullos v. Lee, Civ. No. H-02-219 (S.D.Tex. June 24, 2002)


Fall 2002, reports