College Students Defy Free Speech Restrictions to Celebrate Death of Bin Laden

By May 2, 2011

The announcement late last evening that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan inspired celebrations outside the White House, in New York City, and on a number of college campuses. Spontaneous gatherings in response to major eventssuch as beginning or ending a war, an assassination, a heinous campus crimeare natural and to be expected. Unfortunately, many colleges maintain "free speech zones" and other restrictions on demonstrations that ban students from spontaneous protests. Last night, students demonstrated anyway.

Considering the importance of the event, it’s not surprising that police on some campuses put aside the rules in order to "let the large crowd ‘run its course,’" as at Penn State. At Iowa State, the large crowd even moved from place to place and became a parade, but according to Iowa State Daily Editor in Chief Jessie Opoien, the police merely watched or filmed: "Police officer taping celebration told us it’s all ok as long as everyone stays safe."

Sounds like a typically American demonstration, right? The trouble is, Penn State and Iowa State maintain "free speech zone" policies that tell students such spontaneous demonstrations are simply not acceptable. Penn State’s policy is here. Iowa State’s policy states:

Organizations and groups of persons wishing to use outdoor areas other than a designated public forum for a public event must file a notice of intent to use an area with the Student Activities Center. If possible, such notice should be filed at least twenty-four hours in advance of the event, but in any case must be given at least three hours prior to the event. … A public event not at an open forum area, which does not meet the above criteria [such as occurring between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.], requires prior approval by filing an Event Authorization Form with the Student Activities Center at least three business days in advance of the proposed event. [Emphasis added.]

For colleges and universities, last night’s celebrations are exactly the kinds of situations that should cause them to question the wisdom of restrictions that ban such events without permits and waiting periods. Such celebrations are exactly the kinds of things (fires notwithstanding) that campus speech policies should allow and account for. While it is good that Penn State and Iowa State did not employ their policies to shut down last night’s activities (at least the legal ones), one has to wonder: would the schools do the same when the spontaneous event is a protest of campus policies? Or will these government agencies set an indefensible double standard when it comes to less popular speech? FIRE will be watching.

Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park Iowa State University