Colleges adopt new policies on free speech

The nation’s largest association of student judicial administrators voted in March to protect students’ First Amendment rights to free speech as three universities this spring adopted new student speech policies intended to loosen restrictions on what students can say and where they can say it.

The Association of Student Judicial Affairs passed a resolution that “urges public institutions of higher education to ensure that their policies, rules and procedures protect students’ freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”

David Parrott, ASJA president and dean of student life at Texas A&M University, said the group “believes in the university as the marketplace of ideas and in the concept that we should provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas.”

“A healthy university community needs to be able to express opinions regardless of how hurtful they may be to others,” Parrott said. “We also need to be able to deal with how offensive free speech impacts our campus and the individuals that make up the campus community.”

If students wanted to protest last year at the University of Texas at El Paso, they had to receive permission from a dean and limit their demonstration to one of two designated “speech zones” on campus. 

Students Ruben Reyes and Kristofer Johnson felt the school’s speech policy went against the school’s obligation to protect free speech on campus and in March 2003, they sued the university, claiming the policy violated the First Amendment.

Although the legal battle continues, the university evaluated and changed its campus speech rules in January.

“We began looking at [the policies] because some questions came 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 about because the speech policies had not been reviewed in more than 10 years, not because the lawsuit was filed against the school.

The new policies still place restrictions on people not affiliated with the university, but “students, faculty, and staff have the right to assemble, to speak, and to attempt to attract the attention of others.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Feiner v. New York in 1951 and again in Ward v. Rock Against Racism in 1989 that the government cannot place content-based restrictions on speakers, but it can place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on people wishing to speak on public property.

Maria Hernandez, the attorney for the UTEP students who sued the school, said that while some of the policies still create barriers to free speech, “[the new policies] are better in that they wipe out free-speech zones.”

UTEP was not the only school that changed its campus speech policies this spring.

Ryan Cooper, a student at Southwest Missouri State University, filed a lawsuit against the university in November 2003 over its speech policies. Cooper claimed that he was prevented from distributing his newspaper on campus, an action he said violated his First Amendment rights.

Earle Doman, SMSU’s dean of students, said that although the Springfield school’s policies on campus speech were changed in January after the lawsuit was filed, Cooper’s lawsuit did not initiate the policy changes.

Before the change took effect, the “Bear Paw,” a location on campus set up for student speech, was “the only location on University Property designated for campus debates, forums, rallies, demonstrations, peaceful protests and other similar public forum activities,” according to court documents.

The new policy states “All members of the Southwest Missouri State University community, which includes students, faculty and staff, are encouraged to exercise the right of assembly, free speech and expression throughout the campus, when doing so does not disrupt the academic mission or daily University functions.”

“I’ve had positive feedback from faculty members who were concerned,” Doman said. “The policy changes are most appropriate; everybody seems to be pleased.”

Kevin Theriot, Cooper’s lawyer from the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit religious liberties organization, said the policies have been “changed for the better.”

A similar lawsuit at Shippensburg University was settled earlier this spring.

Students at the school in Pennsylvania were forced to remove anti-Osama bin Laden posters because school policy restricted speech that was “inflammatory, demeaning, or harmful toward others.” The posters, which depicted bin Laden in crosshairs, were deemed offensive to the campus community.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a lawsuit on behalf of two students against the school’s administration in April 2003. In September, a court ruled that the school’s policies were “likely unconstitutional.”

Then in January, the school settled the lawsuit with FIRE, a nonprofit organization that advocates for students’ First Amendment rights, and agreed to change portions of its student conduct code.

The code of conduct now reads “No person shall engage in conduct that constitutes unlawful discrimination based on another person’s race, color, sex, religion, age or national origin.” According to a press release by the school, the Racism and Cultural Diversity Policy was replaced with “a statement on the university’s commitment to educational diversity.” n