Students sue U. of Cincinnati over 'free speech zone'

OHIO — Universityof Cincinnati students filed suit Wednesday, claiming the school violated theirFirst Amendment rights by requiring them to collect petition signatures onlywithin the confines of a “free speech area” on campus.

The UC branch of Young Americans for Liberty claims theuniversity’s “use of facilities” policy is unconstitutional because it unreasonablylimits free speech to a particular area of campus.

The policy requires students to reserve the free speech zonein advance for any “demonstrations, picketing or rallies.” Anyone who violatesthe policy can be charged with trespassing.

YAL wants to collect signatures for a ballot initiative thatwould make Ohio a “right-to-work” state. According to the lawsuit, the groupset up in the free speech zone on Feb. 15 but was only able to interact withsix students because of low foot traffic.

UC claims its policies are in place to protect studentrights. Greg Hand, a university spokesman, said students can ensure theirrights won’t be violated by signing up to use the space.

Hand said the policies were made in the 1950s and 1960s toaddress “disruptive activities” on campus while still “maintaining the basiceducational mission of the institution.”

Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation forIndividual Rights in Education, said he has concerns over the university’spolicies.

“The idea is that universities want to quarantine freespeech activities to a small part of campus so that they don’t have to dealwith students who might be offended or if they think they’re going to stoppotential problems with protesters,” Shibley said. “But the Constitutiondoesn’t specify that public universities can ban the First Amendment everywhereexcept for a certain part of campus.”

Hand said UC isn’t banning First Amendment rights, butattempting to protect them.

“We believe that these policies and procedures are preciselythe sorts of things that strike a balance with the ability to engage in freeexpression,” Hand said, “but remembering that our core mission here is toprovide education.”

He said part of the rationale for the policy is to givepolice adequate time to plan for protection at demonstrations. Hand alsomentioned complaints from students about free speech events around campus.

YAL’s lawsuit also claims that “demonstrate,” “rally” and“picket” are not clearly defined. Thus, petitioning for signatures could beconsidered speech designated for the free speech area. Hand declined to commentwhether signature-gathering is covered by the policy.

“You could make an argument that (signature-gathering) isnot a demonstration, picket or rally,” Shibley said, “but you could make anargument that it is.”

Members of YAL claim they have seen other organizationsconducting similar signature-gathering events outside the free speech zone.Shibley called it an “apparent double standard.”

Hand said it’s the students that decide whether to sign upto use the zone, and that the greater the opposition, the more he encouragesits use.

“Decisions aren’t made about whether something ispicketing,” Hand said. “Decisions are made about what resources are needed;whether this is the kind of activity that’s going to disrupt normal behavior,whether this is the kind of activity that’s going to require protection.”

According to the complaint, students must file a request 10business days in advance to use the free speech area. However, an email sent toYAL sets that time as five business days, while a university website sets it at15 business days.

The group argues that no matter how much notice is required,the university is acting unconstitutionally by requiring advance notice. 

Hand said he was not aware of any advance noticerequirements. However, he said students are not required to use the free speechzone for all speech, and that it’s up to the students to decide if their eventfalls under the policy.

He said about 30 events happen every day that aren’trequired to use the free speech zone, and that a simple look over the campuscalendar would show that.

The free speech area is about 10,000 square feet — about 0.1percent of West Campus, which totals about 8.5 million square feet. YAL claimsthe area has very low foot traffic; Hand disagreed, claiming the area is at thecenter of campus.

Free speech zones are “frequent components” to university speechcodes, Shibley said. The most limiting policy he knew if was at Texas TechUniversity, whose 20-foot diameter “free speech gazebo” was struck down in2004.

Shibley said public universities can regulate the time,place and manner of student speech in a “reasonable fashion” – for instance,students couldn’t protest in the middle of class.

“But when it comes to the streets, sidewalks, quads andother park-like areas,” Shibley said, “there’s no justification for agovernment-funded institution to say, ‘The First Amendment doesn’t applyhere.’”

YAL wants a judge to declare UC’s policies unconstitutional,along with attorneys’ fees and nominal damages from the university. The students have asked for a temporary restraining order against the policy; a hearing on the matter is scheduled for March 6.