Campus speech rules scrutinized by courts, students, advocates


Opponents say policies violate First Amendment right to protest and distribute material





College students across the nation are helping strike down policies that restrict speech and expression on school property by mounting court battles and staging campus protests. Five colleges and universities have been forced to either throw out their policies or revise them to comply with the First Amendment.

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\nA federal judge ruled in April that the South County Community College District in California violated students' right to free speech.

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\nThe school's policy, approved in 2000 by district trustees, required students at Saddleback and Irvine community college campuses to reserve space outdoors before hosting an event. Students also had to get permission from the college president before distributing written material on campus. This policy was modeled after an earlier policy that was ruled unconstitutional in 1999.

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\nU.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled, ''[that] because the provisions [in the policy] provide the college presidents with absolutely no standards to guide their decisions, they are unconstitutional.''

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\nThe court also said the rules that prohibited students from distributing written material inside all buildings, classrooms and parking lots are ''patently overly broad.'' Any written material, including student newspapers, classroom notes and fliers, could be prohibited under the policy.

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\nSouth Orange has been sued repeatedly by students who found the college's policies were violating their First Amendment rights.

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\nAlan Willion, an attorney with the college, said district officials have not yet decided whether they will appeal the decision. A new policy has not yet been drafted.

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\nAlthough South Orange's policy was struck down by the courts, a policy at Illinois State University failed to pass after more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff voiced opposition.

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\nThe protesters brought a petition in front of the university's academic senate in October during a debate on its proposed ''free-expression policy,'' the first of its kind at the university. The senate proceeded with an early vote, and only one member voted in favor of the policy, effectively striking it down.

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\nThe proposed policy would have limited mass gatherings of students to four ''designated forum areas'' on campus and banned the use of signs with sticks or poles for picketing. The policy also required that students register to use the forum area at least 48 hours before an event.

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\nThe distribution of fliers, newspapers and other materials would have been prohibited in campus buildings without written permission from administrators. The policy also raised questions about noise regulations and the use of symbolic speech on campus.

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\nThe designated forum areas, opponents said, were located in low-traffic areas, which could have limited student access to events.

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\nFaculty and students questioned the need for a policy because there are few demonstrations or protests on campus, said Jim Reid, professor and senate member.

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\nThe senate has not requested any revision of the failed proposal, and senate members say the issue is dead.

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\nAfter more legal action and protests, West Virginia University dropped its restrictive freedom of expression policy in November and adopted yet another set of rules.

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\nAfter nine months of debate and numerous re-writes of the prohibitive policy, the university's board of governors adopted the current draft that suggests protests should be held in designated zones. An earlier incarnation of the policy, adopted in April 2002, had restricted groups to areas that comprised just five percent of the campus, which opponents said severely limited student awareness of protests.

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\nThe policy now mandates that groups are not allowed to protest within eight feet of another person or group without the expressed consent of the other person or group. Groups also are prohibited from gathering near the entrances of health-care facilities.

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\nA lawsuit over the constitutionality of the earlier version of the policy will be dismissed, according to the Rutherford Institute, the group that filed the suit.

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\nWhile some colleges are either rewriting or completely abandoning their speech policies, two Texas universities are now being forced to look into the issue after student groups filed federal lawsuits.

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\nUniversity of Texas might allow more free speech on campus if school officials follow recommendations by a task force that was created after a pro-life group filed a lawsuit against the school.

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\nThe 17-member panel, comprised of staff and faculty, issued 145 pages of recommendations in November to the university president.

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\nAmong the recommendations, the panel proposed banning the term ''free-speech zones.'' Members fear the term gives the perception that certain areas on campus are off-limits to free speech.

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\nInstead the task force is seeking to add additional ''amplified'' sound areas, the new term for zones, on campus for protests and rallies. A rule requiring students to request written permission in order to hold protests is being recommended for repeal; however, students would be required to seek advance permission for holding rallies that require amplified sound.

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\nThe panel also recommended that the university repeal a ban on carrying signs inside buildings and ordered university police to make public its policy on monitoring student protests and political activity.

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\nUniversity President Larry Faulkner created the task force after students protested against a pro-life group's display of photos of aborted fetuses on campus.

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\nThe group, Justice For All, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit in September seeking to overturn the university's speech policies after university officials censored its exhibit and written materials. The lawsuit is attempting to throw out 11 policies the university enacted during the demonstration.

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\nAnother Texas university is facing trouble over a free-speech policy that one federal judge has already declared unconstitutional.

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\nThe Pro-Life Cougars filed suit against the University of Houston in January 2002 for not allowing the group to display photographs of unborn fetuses on campus.

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\nA district judge ruled in June that the policy gave too much ''unfettered discretion'' to the dean of students and ordered the university to allow the group to display its photos. The photos were displayed in September.

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\nFour days after the ruling, the university re-wrote its policy, which some critics now say is more unconstitutional than the first set of guidelines.

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\nThe Alliance Defense Fund amended its original complaint in October to question the constitutionality of the second policy.

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\nThe court has yet to set a trial date.


reports, Winter 2002-03