‘Free-speech zones’ at Texas, Wis. universities challenged

Three months after being prohibited fromusing campus space to display an exhibit, a student organizationand its leader are suing the University of Houston.

Jeanne Tullos and the Pro-Life Cougars, a student group ofwhich she is president, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Jan.22. According to the complaint, the plaintiffs allege the university’spolicy governing student expression is "unconstitutionallyvague."

The college’s policy calls for the sponsor of a "potentiallydisruptive" event to meet with the dean of students two weeksprior to the activity. "Potentially disruptive" eventsare also limited to certain campus locations and certain hoursof the day.

The policy "grants unfettered discretion to the universityofficials, constitutes a content and viewpoint-based restrictionon expression, creates an impermissible hecklers veto, and isan unconstitutional prior restraint on protected expression,"the complaint states.

The Pro-Life Cougars’ exhibit was designed to "promotejustice and the right to life" for the unborn, elderly, disabledand all "vulnerable people," according to the group’sevent registration form. It included signs and literature offeringhelp and advice about pregnancy, adoption and post-abortion recovery.The display also contained abortion-related photographs.

The group had applied in October to use one of three spacesnear Butler Plaza, a popular campus gathering place where, accordingto the complaint, the same "Justice for All" exhibithad been displayed in spring 2001 (when sponsored by a differentcampus organization).

The university denied the Pro-Life Cougars’ request, offeringtwo alternate sites which did not satisfy the students since theywere in locations far removed from where students normally congregate,the complaint said.

The University of Houston has yet to file its response. Tullos’attorney, Benjamin Bull, said the parties would probably decidethe case without going to trial.

The notion of "free-speech zones" — specific areason campus where protests or other large-scale expressive activitiesare allowed to occur — dates back to late 1980s. Administratorsclaim the guidelines are merely designed to prevent unruly demonstrationsfrom interfering with the business of educating students. Civilliberties advocates argue that restrictions on speech can be aviolation of the First Amendment.

In a similar matter, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewaterrescinded a policy last week regarding on-campus expression. Theguidelines, which designate certain "free-speech areas"as well as prohibit political posters on university property,had been gradually modified since 1991, according to an articlein The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The policy was added in writing to the university handbookin December, prompting protest from students and faculty alike.Administrators are forming a committee to revise the policy.

Read our previous coverage.Students criticize speech policies Report, Winter 2000-01