Policy restricting non-students to free-speech zones OK, court says

MARYLAND — Animal rights groups, political candidates and other non-student groups will either have to find a school group to sponsor them or reserve a place in advance if they want to speak or distribute fliers at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided Sept. 12 that the university could maintain its policy that speakers who are not students or faculty must speak and distribute materials only in specified “free-speech zones”.

The appeal dealt only with the rights of non-student speakers. Two years ago the university settled an initial lawsuit by rewriting its Event Management Handbook to allow students and faculty to speak and distribute literature in any outdoor area of the campus.

The initial lawsuit, filed in March 2003 by two students, claimed that the university was oppressing freedom of speech by requiring all speech on campus to be conducted in “free-speech zones.” These “free-speech zones” had to be reserved in advance on a space available basis, and giving speeches or distributing flyers were not allowed outside the designated area.

“Designating certain areas for freedom of speech is tantamount to declaring the rest of the campus a censorship zone,” Ken Paulson, former executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, said in an editorial he wrote for the center in 2003. Paulson is now the editor of USA Today. “At public universities, their policies constitute government restrictions on speech, raising significant First Amendment issues.”

Revised in 2003, the Events Management Handbook now allows students and faculty to give speeches and distribute fliers anywhere outdoors without prior reservations. However, the school did not extend the same privileges to community members and non-student speakers.

In the appeal decision, the court ruled that the campus was neither a public forum like a park which anyone can visit, nor a closed or a non-public forum like a military base where use is restricted from the general public. Rather, the university is a limited public forum that is both limited to students in some cases, but open to the public in other cases. Because of its special status as a limited public forum, the court of appeals panel unanimously decided that it was acceptable for the university to have different rules for students and non-students.

“We’re certainly pleased that the decision was in our favor that the campus is not like a street or park,” said Cassandra Robinson, University of Maryland spokesperson.

“We’re disappointed, but the university substantially modified its policy in regard to students so that’s one very substantial policy achieved,” said Anthony Epstein, a lawyer representing former University of Maryland students Daniel Sinclair and Rebecca Sheppard, who brought the initial lawsuit against the school.

According to Epstein, his clients has several options: taking no further action, appealing the case to a larger panel of 4th Circuit Court judges or asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.

“We’re considering our options,” he said.

–by Kim Peterson


  • ACLU v. Mote, No. 041890 (4th Cir. Sept. 12, 2005).

For resources on “free-speech zones,” visit: