Free Speech (in the Free Speech Zone, after Paperwork) at Indiana University

By December 6, 2010

The Indiana Daily Student, a student newspaper at Indiana University-Bloomington (IU), has run an interesting series on the history of Dunn Meadow, described as "[a] right-angled triangle, 925 feet long by 407 feet wide, intersected by a natural stream," which since 1962 has been a designated free speech area for the IU campus. Articles published throughout the week in the Daily Student have chronicled Dunn Meadow’s role in aiding the Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s, as well as the women’s and gay rights movements in recent decades. An interactive timeline shows images of various rallies, concerts, and vigils having taken place there through the years. The problem with such a free speech zone, however, is that it makes the rest of campus a "censorship zone."

Furthermore, the Daily Student gets to the fine print about use of Dunn Meadow for student speech and expression, revealing increasing restrictions on use of the area, heightened bureaucracy, and confusion and dissatisfaction among students.

The Daily Student article starts promisingly enough:

"At any time, an organization or student may exercise his/her right to free speech in Dunn Meadow and at the Sample Gates. No reservation forms are necessary. Dunn Meadow is the only space on campus designated by the IU Board of Trustees as a spontaneous free speech area," according to IU’s Policy on Free Speech.

In practice, unfortunately, matters are considerably byzantine, especially once we get into the category of free speech called "demonstrations." The Daily Student article points out that, according to IU’s Student Organization Handbook, "Students or student organizations planning a protest march or demonstration on campus should contact the Student Activities Office 24 hours in advance of the proposed march to discuss applicable University policies and to confirm the line of march." From here, confusion ensues:

"Any outdoor event sponsored by a student organization on University property must be registered with and approved by Student Activities," according to Space Reservation Policies in the IU Student Organization Handbook.

But are protests included in the term "outdoor event?"

"If they bring in a table or display, that might be going over free speech protections," McKaig said, in which case the group would have to register.

Organizations are requested to register an event at least seven business days prior to the date and 10 days if the event requires security, according to the outdoor campus event registration form.

Seven to 10 business days’ notice to exercise a free speech right is an unreasonableand most likely unconstitutionalregulation because it is much longer than any minimally competent university needs.

What’s more, the Daily Student had trouble getting a clear answer as to just who approves these events, since it isn’t clearly spelled out by the Student Organization Handbook. The Student Activities Office (SAO) at IU wasn’t much help, either:

Senior Nick Zolfo, the help desk assistant at SAO, said a campus-wide committee approves the events and displays. The committee members selected depend on the nature of the event.

He could not give specific names of committee members.

All of this adds up to a lot of unwarranted confusion among IU students regarding how they can exercise their First Amendment rights on campus without getting in trouble.

This confusion is exemplified by the story of one organization:

Chris Kase, president of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, said when trying to plan a display for the Transgender Day of Remembrance through her organization, she questioned how the demonstrations were approved.

"You have to get permission," she said. "You have to go fill out paperwork and turn in a sheet that says what you’re doing. "So who’s the board? Who are these people that are approving it? I had just started this organization, so I didn’t know anything."

According to another article in the Dunn Meadow series, the group’s Day of Remembrance event did go off on November 17, with close to forty participants. That same article, though, points to discontent over limiting free speech to this one area, and Kase’s frustrations:

But Kase wanted the display to be bigger than Dunn Meadow, and said the original plan was to line the path from the Sample Gates to the Indiana Memorial Union with the tombstones – a path she said more students walk on a daily basis and that goes past administration buildings.

"I didn’t feel like enough people got to see it," she said. "I don’t think it got the exposure it could have gotten."

But there were restrictions. To use the field, Kase said she had to fill out forms explaining the display and the group’s plan. She grew frustrated when she could not find out why the signs could not be put in other areas – even more so as the date got closer.

"I understand that the University is set up, they want it to look good," she said. "They make a statement that we’re not allowed to put signs in other areas. They have big United Way signs in designated areas that aren’t supposed to have signs."

This possible double standard aside, the experience of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals shows what is wrong with limiting free speech to a single free speech zone.

IU should reconsider these policies. The Supreme Court’s decision in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 800 (1989) might be of help here: content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions are permissible only "[s]o long as the means chosen are not substantially broader than necessary to achieve the government’s interest."

FIRE can help as well. In fact, earlier this year we drafted a memo outlining speech policy deficiencies at Indiana University-Bloomington, and we would be happy to help the IU administration sort things out. Meanwhile, former FIRE intern and IU student Nico Perrino got the memo and is working on getting IU from a yellow light to a green light rating. Nico reports that the Indiana University Student Association, which has established a committee dedicated to such a purpose, has reviewed the policies and is building a coalition of students and faculty to work on getting the troublesome policies changed. That’s a great start.

FIRE thanks the Indiana Daily Student for its series of articles on Dunn Meadow as a free speech landmark and the attention the series has brought to First Amendment issues on campus.

Schools: Indiana University – Bloomington