FIRE Letter to University of North Texas President Gretchen M. Bataille

By on September 9, 2009

September 9, 2009

President Gretchen M. Bataille
University of North Texas
Office of the President
1155 Union Circle, #311425
Denton, Texas 76203-5017

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (940-565-4322)

Dear President Bataille:

As you can see from the list of our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; www.thefire.org) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of association on America’s college campuses.

FIRE is concerned about policies restricting freedom of speech at the University of North Texas (UNT). According to UNT’s Free Speech and Public Assembly Policy, the university designates only six "free speech areas" on campus. Restricting free speech to just six areas of the UNT campus has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and minimizes students’ constitutional guarantee of free speech, which UNT, as a public institution, is bound by the First Amendment to protect.

UNT’s Free Speech and Public Assembly Policy, which governs the university’s "free speech areas," provides that students "may engage in constitutionally protected speech and expression at the University of North Texas" in six areas. These six areas are designated in the policy as follows:

Area A: Lawn area Southeast of the University Union.

Area B: Lawn area West of the Business Building and closest to the South main walkway.

Area C: Treed area just east of Area B.

Area D: Lawn area North of Area B.

Area E: Lawn area North of the Language Building on the corner of Ave. A and Fry Street. No sound amplification equipment is permitted in this area.

Area F: Lawn area South of the Library Mall (LMA). Residence Hall Quiet Hours apply to this space.

The policy further provides that individual or group use of these areas for expressive purposes is contingent upon approval by the Dean of Students, from whom students must request permission for such purposes. Further, reserving one of these six areas in advance is required, as the policy provides that "reservations should be made at least two working days in advance of the event for scheduling purposes." Presumably, engaging in expressive activity is not permitted outside of these zones.

As a public institution, UNT is legally obligated to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. By requiring free speech activities to take place in free assembly areas, UNT has failed to uphold this obligation. The only possible defense of UNT’s policy would be that it presents a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction as allowed by cases like Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989). There is nothing reasonable, however, about transforming the vast majority of the university’s propertyindeed, public propertyinto a censorship area, or about maintaining a system of onerous requirements by which students must abide in order to exercise their fundamental rights. Federal case law regarding freedom of expression simply does not support the transformation of public institutions of higher education into places where constitutional protections are the exception rather than the rule. Time and again, courts have determined that to be considered legal, restrictions on time, place, and manner must be narrowly tailored to serve substantial governmental interests. The generalized concern for order that underlies the establishment of "free speech zone" policies is neither specific nor substantial enough to justify such restrictions.

FIRE has successfully challenged free speech zones at universities across the nation, including those at West Virginia University, Seminole Community College in Florida, Citrus College in California, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Texas Tech University, and the University of Nevada-Reno. In all of these cases, the institutions have either decided to open their campuses to expressive activities or have been forced by a court to do so. For instance, in FIRE’s case at Texas Tech, a federal court determined that Texas Tech’s policy must be interpreted to allow free speech for students on "park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas … irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not." See Roberts v. Haragan, 346 F. Supp. 2d 853 (N.D. Tex. 2004). UNT would be well-advised to take this decision into account in considering its own policiesnot feared, restrained, and hidden. Let your students exercise their basic legal, moral, and human rights; let them speak, assemble, and protest as their consciences dictate.

We request a response on this matter by September 30, 2009, and we thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Will Creeley

Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

 

cc:

Bonita Hairston, Chief of Staff

Bonita Jacobs, Vice President for Student Development

Mona Hicks, Dean of Students

Renaldo L. Stowers, Senior Associate General Counsel

Garrett Graham

North Texas Daily