First Amendment covers campuses, too

January 22, 2006

News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)

The First Amendment creates a free speech and assembly zone from one end of the United States to the other.

Except at UNCG.

University rules permit outdoor assemblies without prior approval only in two areas on campus. Even then, administrators must be given 48 hours’ notice.

Fortunately, that policy is under review — just in time to prevent a legal challenge. Two students, members of College Libertarians, led a peaceful protest in front of Jackson Library in November and were charged with code-of-conduct violations. The proposed disciplinary actions against seniors Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott were dismissed Jan. 13.

The students were supported by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which joined with Raleigh’s Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in issuing a Jan. 10 report alleging unconstitutionally restrictive regulations throughout the University of North Carolina system. The First Amendment too often is overridden by campus speech codes designed to punish the use of offensive language, the organizations say.

Nothing in the report quite matches UNCG’s designated free-speech zones, which administrators explain as well-intended remnants of the Vietnam War era, when raucous protests disrupted campuses across the country and sometimes led to violence.

Whatever its origins, the policy was revised in September 2003 with the free-speech-zone rules intact. Furthermore, it was defended in a letter written last month by university counsel Lucien Capone III to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

UNCG values freedom of speech, Capone wrote, adding: “By the same token, we believe that reasonable time, place, and manner regulations are essential to preserving that right lest there be free speech for no one.”

Capone went on to explain that assemblies may be allowed on other parts of the campus as long as written requests are submitted 48 hours in advance.

Of course, a university should be able to police gatherings to make sure that two or more aren’t happening in the same place at the same time, that they aren’t impeding other activity, and for other good reasons. But UNCG’s policy is much more restrictive than that — to the point of being unconstitutional, even ridiculous. It should be rewritten so that, if students want to march outside the chancellor’s office to protest tuition increases, for example, they don’t have to ask for the chancellor’s permission two days ahead of time or face a serious disciplinary procedure.

The citation against Jaynes and Sinnott said they “held a free speech demonstration in a non-free speech area and refused to move when given a directive from official.” It sounds so Orwellian it should have embarrassed university leaders. To their credit, they dropped the case rather than actually meting out some punishment and inviting a lawsuit they certainly would lose.

Next, they should do away with the very concept of “non-free speech” areas. A public university campus, like the rest of the United States, ought to be a free speech and assembly area from one end to the other, just as the First Amendment intends.

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Schools: University of North Carolina School of the Arts University of North Carolina – Wilmington University of North Carolina – Pembroke University of North Carolina – Greensboro University of North Carolina – Charlotte Cases: University of North Carolina System: State of the First Amendment University of North Carolina at Greensboro: Punishment of Free Speech Protestors