Democracy on a Ten-Day Delay?

By September 24, 2012

As the presidential election season accelerates rapidly both on and off campus, yet another story provides ample evidence of the folly of over-regulating student speech.

Last Tuesday, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan visited the public Christopher Newport University (CNU) in Virginia to deliver an address. In the midst of a contentious campaign, one would think that a university would provide space for debate on all sides … right?

Unfortunately, students who wished to protest Ryan’s speech were told that they had missed the 10-day window for registering their event and would be unable to demonstrate. According to the CNU Student Handbook’s policy on freedom of expression:

A demonstration is defined as the assembly of a group of persons to express their views on an issue … The University requires notification of picketing or demonstrations 10 business days prior to the event with the CNU Scheduling Office …

I must have missed the part of the First Amendment that specifies you have to provide the government with 10 days notice before you "express [your] views on an issue."

The Ryan event was announced only two days before it was held, so CNU’s Feminist Alliance and Gay Straight Student Union would have never been able to hold their demonstration because of this policy. With Virginia being a "swing state" in the upcoming election and hosting many visits from the candidates, it’s not hard to imagine student protests of President Obama or Vice President Biden being similarly prohibited on CNU’s campus before the election is over. In response to criticism from students and the ACLU of Virginia, school officials announced that they will be hosting an assembly to address concerns about the policy. 

FIRE hopes that further discussion of the prohibition will spur its revision and provide a lesson to those who believe long waiting periods are an appropriate regulation of campus speech. In a democracy, and particularly in the heat of an election season, all voices should be heard, regardless of advance notice.

Edit: This blog was corrected on September 26, 2012. The Ryan visit was announced two days prior, not one. 

Schools: Christopher Newport University