Univ. of Houston agrees to allow more free speech on campus

TEXAS — The University of Houston has revised itspolicy governing student demonstrations in response to a recent settlementreached between the school and a student anti-abortion group that sued it twoyears ago. Under the new policy, students now can use any area of thecampus for demonstrations, speeches, protests or displays. Previously, theschool had designated one area of campus as a “free-speech zone,”where demonstrations could be held at any time, and required university approvalfor use of four other areas. Now, the university has increased the number ofspeech zones to five, while opening up the rest of campus to approveddemonstrations. U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein declared theuniversity’s former policy unconstitutional in March, and a settlement wasreached between the parties on June 9. The settlement also required theuniversity to pay $93,000 in attorney fees to the anti-abortion group, thePro-Life Cougars. Sheree Tullos, a recent graduate of the University ofHouston, filed the lawsuit in 2001 when the school prohibited her anti-abortiongroup from displaying a picture of a dead fetus in a high-traffic area ofcampus. The Pro-Life Cougars were represented by Benjamin Bull, a lawyerwith the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization based in Scottsdale,Ariz.Bull and Tullos argued that the university denied the Pro-LifeCougars’s display because of the content. Tullos said one of themajor changes in the policy is that students are now permitted to displaystationary objects and hold demonstrations in Butler Plaza, a large area in themiddle of campus. Butler Plaza is one of five “free-speech zones”the university has designated under the settlement. The new policy alsoclarifies the reasons that the dean of students can require that a demonstrationor display relocate. The former policy stated that the dean had discretion tomove an “expressive activity” if it was interfering with the rightsof others or the operation of the university. Under the new policy, thedean of students only can relocate a demonstration or display if the number ofpeople attending the event exceeds the size of that area or if the activityconflicts with previously scheduled events. Tullos said her goal infiling the lawsuit was to force the school to allow free speech everywhere oncampus without requiring students to apply in advance. Although the new policystill mandates that students submit an application for use of areas that areoutside speech zones, Tullos said she was still pleased. “Wedidn’t get what we originally asked for but we still won,” she said.“I settled because I felt like if we kept going then I might getnothing.” Donna Hamilton, general counsel for the University ofHouston, said the school did not believe the old policy was unconstitutional butwas happy to have a new policy that everyone agreed on. Tullos said shewas optimistic that the new policy would allow future Pro-life Cougars toexpress their views on abortion without conflicting with the administrators.“I am confident that they [the university administration]won’t give the Pro-Life Cougars as many problems as they gave me,”she said.