Learning and Unlearning Liberty at the U. of Cincinnati

By August 28, 2012

Last week, we brought you news of the final nail in the University of Cincinnati’s (UC’s) "free speech zone" coffin: A federal district court in Ohio issued a permanent injunction against UC’s unconstitutional policy restricting student expressive activity to a tiny area of campus and requiring students to register such activity with the university ten working days in advance. The court’s order made final its earlier decision, via preliminary injunction, to enjoin the university from enforcing the policy. As we have happily declared, last week’s ruling is a significant win for students’ First Amendment rights on campus.

The News Record, the main student newspaper at UC, has taken note of this case. As the News Record writes, as a result of the court’s decision, UC may not limit student speech in outdoor areas of the campus unless the restriction is "narrowly tailored to serve a compelling University interest."

The News Record article elicits the reaction of UC’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), the student group that brought the First Amendment challenge:

After a seven-month legal battle and a temporary compromise, UC YAL members are elated with the final ruling, said Ian Gulley, president of the UC chapter of YAL.

"This is a win for all student organizations," Gulley said. "It is giving everyone the opportunity to say what they want, whenever they want without having to be in a free speech zone or having to abide by policies."

Gulley is right; all students at UC should be thankful to the YAL chapter for bringing this legal challenge and procuring federal court protection for their First Amendment rights.

However, not all students seem to be aware of the import of this ruling:

Yet the original speech policy was composed with the students’ best interest in mind, said Lane Hart, student body president.

"The original way the free speech policy was written was with good intention so that it wasn’t disturbing class or traffic," Hart said. "At the same time, it’s good that we can have an exchange of ideas anywhere on campus."

[...]

"The comments I have received have been from people not trying to promote a free speech event but [students] who have been offended or affected by some free speech activity [on campus]," Hart said.

It is, frankly, more than a little disappointing and disturbing to hear the student body president at a major public university, on the heels of such a clear victory for students rights, speak essentially as an apologist for the university’s unconstitutional policy. Hart seems to be demonstrating a little bit of "unlearning liberty" here. Thankfully, the aforementioned Ian Gulley has the right response:

Those offended by free speech activity on campus should go on private property if they want something else, Gulley said.

"You have a chance of running into petitioners or people displaying their views [on public property]," Gulley said. "That’s how things are."

Indeed, as we often say at FIRE, there is no "right not to be offended" on a public college campus. Let’s hope that as UC students move forward with newfound protections for free speech on their campus, they keep that principle in mind and enjoy their First Amendment rights to the fullest.

Our thanks to the News Record for letting UC’s students know more about this case.

Schools: University of Cincinnati Cases: University of Cincinnati: Speech Code Litigation