Two universities sued over ‘free-speech zone’ policies

Students at two universities filed lawsuits last week, claimingtheir schools’ ”free-speech zone” policies violate their FirstAmendment rights. The outcomes of the cases could have an impact on studentjournalists attempting to distribute publications by hand on campus.Acomplaint filed March 6 by two students at the University of Maryland atCollege Park claims a policy that restricts public speaking and leafleting oncampus is unconstitutional. Current policy limits public speaking to onebuilding on campus and allows the distribution of literature on one sidewalk infront of the student union. Public speaking or distribution of material in otherareas is prohibited.Daniel Sinclair and Rebecca Sheppard, both membersof the University of Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, filed the suitafter attempts at a resolution with the administration failed. Thecomplaint stated, “Even in those limited areas where such activity is everpermitted, the university severely restricts the times and days during which itis allowed. The University of Maryland-College Park policy that students andothers should be seen but not heard in public places on campus is anathema tothe First Amendment.”University spokesperson George Cathcart saidthe University of Maryland has a more open speech policy than is being portrayedby the ACLU.“We value free speech very highly and we make everyeffort we can to make sure that people can have their voices heard,”Cathcart said. “People also have the right to go to class and not beharassed, so it’s always a balance of those things, but the universitydoes make a tremendous effort to make sure that people have an opportunity toexpress their views, no matter how unpopular they may be.”ArthurSpitzer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the outcome of the case couldaffect student journalists wishing to distribute their newspapers inundesignated areas on campus. He said although most student media makeagreements with their administrations regarding distribution, those that do notwould be afforded greater protections if free-speech areas are ruledunconstitutional.In a similar case, two students at the University ofTexas at El Paso filed suit against the administration March 7, claiming theschool’s use of free speech areas and written permits for events violatesFirst Amendment protections.“The administration at UTEP has beenprohibiting lots of the students from having functions, and lots of them arerelated to political speech,” said Maria Hernandez, ACLU cooperatingattorney. “They’re engaged in a practice of making students submitpaperwork and keeping them on hold.”The current policy at UT-ElPaso requires students to submit a form with detailed information about upcomingevents, such as location, purpose and who will be involved. Reyes said studentsmust also obtain signatures from campus departments that could be affected bythe event, such as the dean of students or facility services. UT-El Paso has two“free-speech” zones, but Reyes said students must still obtainpermits to organize there. He added that he has been struggling with theadministration regarding free speech for months.“This takes up alot of my time, and I would rather apply it to just going to school,”Reyes said. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that dealing with theadministration takes time away from my studies, and that seems to me to be anobstacle that they shouldn’t be permitting.” Hernandez saidthis case could affect student journalists who attend universities that aretrying to curtail political or religious speech in newspapers. She said certaingroups have been denied permits based on the nature of their requests, and thatstudent journalists wishing to distribute publications would not be exempt fromsuch denial.Both lawsuits follow nationwide discussion about theconstitutionality of “free-speech zones.” West Virginia University,the University of Texas, New Mexico State University and the University ofWisconsin-Whitewater all amended or eliminated speech areas in recent yearsfollowing legal challenges or pressure.

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