Universities in Mo., Texas change speech policies in wake of students’ lawsuits

Two universitiesfaced with lawsuits claiming their policies on campus speech wereunconstitutional have reviewed and rewritten policies that upheldstudents’ rights to free expression.The speech policies at theUniversity of Texas at El Paso and Southwest Missouri State Universityprohibited students from giving speeches, holding rallies or distributingliterature outside of designated areas of campus.The U.S. Supreme Courtruled in Feiner v. New York in 1951 and again in Ward v. Rock AgainstRacism in 1989 that the government cannot place content-based restrictionson speakers, but it is legal to place reasonable time, place and mannerrestrictions on people wishing to speak on campus. Several universitieshave changed their speech policies in the wake of lawsuits filed against them bystudents, who allege speech policies violate their First Amendment right to freespeech.Until recently, UTEP students wishing to speak on campus had tofill out a form requesting permission and, according to the previous Handbook ofOperating Procedures, ”obtain permission from one or more of theappropriate officials listed as well as the dean.” UTEP also had only twoareas on campus designated as speech zones.Two students, Ruben Reyes andKristofer Johnson, sued the university claiming its speech zones and speechpolicies violated the First Amendment. Reyes alleged that he applied forpermission to speak more than 20 times and the university denied eachrequest.The university denies the policy change was a result of thelawsuit.”We began looking at [the policies] because some questionscame up about what our rules were or weren’t,” said Richard Padilla,vice president of student affairs at UTEP. He said the policy review came aboutbecause the speech policies hadn’t been reviewed in more than 10 years.In the updated Handbook of Operating Procedures, restrictions are stillplaced on persons not affiliated with the university, but ”Students,faculty and staff have the right to assemble, to speak, and to attempt toattract the attention of others.”Padilla said the changes to thepolicies are major and the university is informing students of the changesthrough a series of information sessions. He said the university modeled its newpolicies on ones adopted by the University of Texas at Austin, another schoolrecently sued over its former speech policies.But Maria Hernandez, theattorney for the UTEP students who sued the school, said that while the schooldid change some of the policies, some of the rules still create barriers to freespeech. ”[The new policies] are better in that they wipe outfree-speech zones,” Hernandez said. ”The rules are definitely a goodstart.”Hernandez still worries that administrators won’tfollow the new policies, which took effect in January.”A schoolcan have any rules,” Hernandez said. ”But if the administratorsdon’t follow the rules, it doesn’t matter.”Hernandezsaid some of the old policies were not unconstitutional, but administrators didnot following them. She said the students have no intention of dropping thelawsuit against the school. She hopes a judge will rule that UTEP is a publicforum, setting a precedent for other schools that restricting student speech isunconstitutional.Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield hasalso changed its policies on campus speech.Earle Doman, SMSU’sdean of students, said the process of reviewing and changing speech policiesbegan last spring. He said that the lawsuit brought against the school by RyanCooper, a student who published an independent newspaper, did not initiatechanges because a committee to review the policies was alreadyformed.Cooper’s lawsuit is still pending incourt.”Before, the language directly implied the only place oncampus [to demonstrate] was an area referred to as the

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