FIRE Asks Christopher Newport University to Respect Student Protest, Repeal Free Speech Zone

By September 25, 2012

In a letter sent yesterday, FIRE asked Christopher Newport University (CNU) President Paul Trible to immediately rescind restrictions on student demonstrations that prevented student groups from protesting a speech by Vice Presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan last week. CNU’s indefensible decision silenced core political speech on a public university campus during election season—a deeply disappointing result. 

Here are the facts, as outlined in our letter:

On September 18, 2012, Representative Ryan spoke at a rally at CNU’s Ferguson Center for the Arts. According to The Daily Press, this visit was not publicly announced until Sunday, September 16. After learning of the rally, CNU student group Feminist Alliance emailed CNU officials on September 17 to request an exception to CNU’s "Demonstration" policy, which provides that "[t]he University requires notification of picketing or demonstrations 10 business days prior to the event with the CNU Scheduling Office." CNU refused to grant the Feminist Alliance an exception to the policy’s notice requirement. CNU’s denial of permission to the Feminist Alliance prompted CNU’s Gay-Straight Student Union (GSSU) to cancel its plans to protest as well. The Daily Press quoted GSSU Vice President Jessica Ruckert saying, "I told everyone to call it off because I don’t want to ruin GSSU’s name."

As you might have guessed, CNU’s "Demonstration" policy is deeply problematic for freedom of expression on campus. Here’s the policy, found in CNU’s student handbook (pdf): 

A demonstration is defined as the assembly of a group of persons to express their views on an issue. Picketing is defined as patrolling a building or area with or without carrying signs or handbills. 

[...]

Demonstrations and Picketing are limited to a designated area on the Great Lawn. The boundaries of this area are defined as approximately 20′ x 20′ on the west side of the David Student Union sidewalk and no closer than 20′ to any adjoining sidewalk. 

Demonstrations or picketing within University buildings or at other location [sic]on the University campus is prohibited.

There are two big problems here: first, the definition of "demonstration" is hopelessly broad and second, the free speech zone established by the policy is hopelessly small. As I wrote in our letter: 

As an initial matter, it is critical to note that CNU’s broad definition of "demonstration" is so vast as to sweep within its purview virtually all student expressive activity. Under CNU’s definition, any student that speaks his or her mind on any subject in conjunction with another student is engaged in a "demonstration," and thus must be confined to an infinitesimal segment of campus. 

Limiting all demonstrations and picketing to this single "designated area" is unconstitutional. While public universities may impose reasonable "time, place, and manner" restrictions on student expression, such restrictions must be "narrowly tailored" to serve a significant governmental interest. Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989) (quoting Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984)). There is nothing "reasonable" nor "narrowly tailored" about transforming the vast majority of the university’s property—indeed, public property—into a censorship area by maintaining a system of onerous requirements by which CNU students and student organizations must abide in order to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression. The generalized concern for order that apparently underlies the establishment of CNU’s free speech zone policy is neither specific enough nor substantial enough to justify limiting the vast majority of student speech to a single 20′ x 20′ area—an area constituting a shocking .00004% of the 260—acre CNU campus, one of the smallest such areas FIRE has encountered in our 13 years of defending student and faculty rights. Further, CNU’s "designated area" is far removed from the Ferguson Arts Center where Representative Ryan’s speech was held, so that even if the Feminist Alliance’s event had been approved, their message would have had great difficulty reaching its target audience. 

CNU’s decision to censor its students has generated headlines. The ACLU of Virginia is also on the case, sending a letter (PDF) to CNU last week. 

Happily, it seems as though this much-needed sunlight may prompt the necessary policy changes at CNU. As The Daily Press (Newport News, VA) reported Sunday:

Following a student outcry last week, Dean of Students Kevin Hughes met with students Friday, displaying a willingness to revise the policy. 

The plan is now that the Student Assembly will draft an amendment to the rules and present it for a vote by Monday. That will then be submitted to CNU President Paul Trible for emergency consideration, the school said. 

"We want to act now because we know it’s political season and something like this could happen on our campus again in the 45 or so days until the general election," Hughes told the Daily Press.

FIRE would welcome an amendment to current CNU policy that respects and protects student First Amendment rights on campus. We look forward to reviewing any changes made, and we hope our letter is helpful to the university in considering the way forward. As always, FIRE stands ready to help as needed.  

We’ll keep you posted on further developments here on The Torch

Schools: Christopher Newport University