Campus defends limits on speech

August 2, 2004

In 1964, students at the University of California, Berkeley staged a massive occupation of the school’s administration building, demanding that they be allowed to express their views on campus.

Eight hundred were arrested during the sit-in, which took place in the midst of the civil rights movement.

These days your civil disobedience, if it can be called that, is a little more mannerly, adhering to time and place restrictions on most campuses. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, petitioning, leafletting and demonstrations are permitted in so-called free speech zones.

The issue of free speech on campus arose recently after two people collecting signatures were arrested at UNLV during an event featuring first lady Laura Bush. University police officials told them they were outside the areas designated for petitioning and protest.

UNLV spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said the two did not notify the university that they planned to petition at the Bush event, in which case school officials could tell them where their activity was allowed.

A month later, District Judge Kenneth Cory ruled signature gatherers no longer need to notify the school of their presence before petitioning.

The university system filed an appeal of Cory’s decision, arguing it should not have to give up the notice requirement.

The system will also ask the court to clarify whether private parties on campus can eliminate existing zones or create their own areas for demonstration if they rent a facility.

Since at least the 1980s, colleges have established designated areas for political and religious demonstrations, leafletting and petition gathering, said Nevada higher education system attorney Bart Patterson.

George Harris, director of Nevadans for Sound Government, argues that since taxpayers paid for UNLV’s brick and mortar, it should be free from such restrictions. One of the petitioners arrested May 18 was gathering signatures for the group.

"The free speech zone starts at the Canadian border and ends at Mexico," he said. "They forget those buildings belong to the people."

David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that has battled so-called free speech zones on college campuses since 1999, said colleges "have grown more and more interested in control, and control of dissent."

"It’s ironic that it comes from this generation of administrators, many of whom cut their teeth protesting the Vietnam War and taking over administrative buildings," he said.

In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed public college campuses are not true public forums because of their purpose to educate. The court’s decision allowed campuses to set up limited restrictions on the First Amendment so as not to interrupt the classroom experience.

According to UNLV policy, the university "will designate certain areas for these activities and will require any and all speakers addressing the general public to confine their activities to these areas."

The zones include lush grass walkways and courtyards that run through the center of campus. Although they cover a small portion of campus, they’re located in the heart of the school’s pedestrian traffic.

The university will request anyone speaking to the public outside those areas to move to a proper zone. But school officials said they are willing to make exceptions with some cooperative groups.

"It’s large and it’s wide ranging and gives you access to almost all buildings," UNLV spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said of the zones. "The law says we need to provide a reasonable area and we have."

Grey defended the institution’s policy, saying it protects the academic mission and keeps building entrances clear. Requiring groups to give advance notice before entering the campus prevents fraudulent organizations from collecting information from students, she said.

"In any classes, of course you can speak your mind. We’re talking about specific activities," she said. "It’s mostly for a safety issue and if anyone is combative or harassing folks, of course we reserve the right to talk to them about it."

She also said the area designated for demonstrations is accessible enough for any group to get their message out. The incident with the Nevadans for Sound Government petitioner marked the first time the school ever had a problem with the zones or advance notice policy, she said.

Unlike some schools with speech policies, UNLV does not review a petition’s content, she said.

When student body President Henry Schuck campaigned last semester, he had to keep off the Valerie Pida Plaza but had access to every other area of campus he wanted, he said.

Located outside the student union, the plaza is the no-fly zone of campus traffic. It was named in honor of Pida, a homecoming queen who died of cancer in 1992.

Passive events, where butts are in chairs behind tables, can be held on the plaza with permission from school officials, according to the policy.

Even Berkeley these days has regulations. Although the school allows protests, leafletting, petitioning and plain old soap box speaking anywhere on campus, groups can only use amplified sound between noon and 1 p.m. and after working hours.

"We have time, place and manner rules," said Marie Felde, the university’s spokeswoman. "There are limitations on protest activities to the extent that it doesn’t disrupt the business of the university and the biggest issue is that it doesn’t disrupt classroom exercises."

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Schools: University of Nevada, Las Vegas