Georgia editor stopped from interviewing students and circulating a petition

GEORGIA — Campus police stopped the editor of a Georgia college’s student newspaper from talking to students and distributing a petition last week because he was outside the school’s free expression zone.

Last Wednesday, The Collegian editor-in-chief David Schick and other members of the paper’s staff went to distribute newspapers at Georgia Perimeter College’s largest of five campuses, Clarkston, and to ask students for their opinions on the cancellation of the fall graduation ceremony.

“I wanted to stand outside and pass out my papers like I normally do, but also fill people in, give them about a 30 to 60 second speech about graduation being canceled,” Schick said. Student government members had said that they didn’t think students cared about the cancellation, so Schick decided to ask students who were upset to sign a petition as a way of documenting student opinion.

Schick said he started out calling out to students with a megaphone, but was soon approached and told to stop by police officers who said they had received complaints about the noise. Schick said he put the megaphone away and kept talking to students until an officer returned.

“The policeman came back and said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that, you gotta go about it the right way,” Schick said. “I’m like, what do you mean, this is my First Amendment right. He’s like ‘Nah, nah you can’t do that, we’ve got a designated area for freedom of speech, and you have to fill out a form.’”

A Department of Student Life staff member told Schick he would have to fill out a form to continue speaking and would be restricted to speaking in the school’s free expression zone. In addition, he would have to wait three days for the form, which requires the notarization of a dean, to be processed.

Schick contacted Deb Homer, the school’s dean of student services, who gave him permission to continue talking to students on the entire campus, not just the free expression zone, though he still had to fill out the form.

“They made me fill out a form to get permission, to just walk around to students and tell them their graduation was canceled and ask them if they were upset about that,” Schick said.

According to the school’s free expression policy, each of the five campuses has a designated free speech zone. Individuals or groups may reserve the space three days in advance on a first-come, first-served basis.

The free expression zone can be used from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Mondays through Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays when classes are in session.

Schick said the Clarkston campus’ designated zone is in a barely trafficked area of the campus. He also questioned the selective enforcement of the policy, saying that he and his staff went to two of the college’s other campuses, Decatur and Dunwoody, but did not have any problems speaking to students there.

Schick said that in the past, other student groups have talked to students and passed out information outside the freedom of expression zone. Newspaper staffers have distributed copies outside the zone before as well, he said.

Homer said that typically, only non-students have been required to use the free expression zone, noting that the last group to use the space were Gideons passing out Bibles. She declined to comment as to why Schick was initially stopped and required to fill out a form last week to talk with students.

Schick’s idea to talk directly to students about the issue came after the college announced through an email that they were going to cancel the graduation ceremony because of a lack of money.

“Not a lot of students check those emails, and they only announced it to upcoming December graduates,” Schick said. “If not everybody knows about it, then they’re not going to be upset about it. If they’re a fall graduate later on in the future, then it could affect them potentially as well.”

Graduating students had paid $25 for the graduation ceremony that was supposed to take place on Dec. 14, but will not be reimbursed their money.

By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.