Student sues Mo. university over its ‘restrictive’ speech zone policies

MISSOURI —- A student atSouthwest Missouri State University filed a lawsuit Friday in federal districtcourt against the university, claiming that its policies on campus speechviolate students’ First Amendment rights.The student, Ryan Cooper,said he brought the suit with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund after hebecame frustrated with what he said were the university’s restrictions on hisspeech. The suit claims that those restrictions included the ”BearPaw,” a zone to which all debates, rallies and protests wererestricted. Cooper also alleged that he, as well as the staff of hispublication, The Bear Review, had their speech rights abridged becausethey were not allowed to freely distribute copies of the newspaper aroundcampus. Cooper is president of the campus group Young Americans for Freedom,which publishes the newspaper.”It was the fact that theyrestricted us in distributing the paper [that I filed suit],” hesaid.The suit claims that, because Young Americans for Freedom was not arecognized campus organization, students were not allowed to bring speakers tocampus or write chalk messages on the sidewalk.”Cooper hascensored, and continues to censor, his own speech on campus grounds outside ofthe Bear Paw free speech area,” the suit said. ”Cooper has censored,and continues to censor, his own speech by refraining from distributingliterature inside university buildings.”John Black, generalcounsel for SMSU, said the university stands by its policies and that it willdefend itself against the lawsuit.”We disagree with theallegations of the complaint, we disagree that they are unconstitutional,”he said.Kevin Theriot, an attorney for the Arizona-based AllianceDefense Fund, said the speech policies were unconstitutional and mirroredsimilar policies on other college campuses.”Southwest MissouriState’s policies are indicative of a lot of universities’ policies aroundthe country,” he said. ”The primary objective is to get the judge torule that limiting speech to the Bear Paw is unconstitutional.”Cooper said the Bear Paw speech zone violates the First Amendmentbecause it limits speech to one area as well as the methods a person inside thearea could use to speak.”When we had our free speech rally, [wewere told] our only right was to yell,” Cooper said, noting thatmicrophones and amplifiers were prohibited.The lawsuit describes theBear Paw as ”approximately 60 feet by 50 feet in area,” in which”only a small portion of the students on campus can be accommodated by theBear Paw at any given time.”Black said the lawsuitmischaracterizes the size of the Bear’s Paw, as well as the level ofrestrictions that the zone places on speech.”We believe [thespeech rules] are constitutional as stated in the policies,” he said.”There are a lot of other expressive activities that occur on [other areasof] campus.” The ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of students at theUniversity of Houston who said their First Amendment rights were abridged byrestrictions against their anti-abortion speech. The University of Houston andADF settled the case in August after a federal district court ruled that theschool’s speech policies were unconstitutional.

Cooper v. Keiser, et al., 03-3421-CV-S-GAF (W.D. Mo. Nov. 21, 2003)

Read previous coverage