Liberty lessons: Student complaints deep-six CSU speech limits

July 23, 2007

The Gazette

Here in the United States, we make a big deal about our right to free speech, and rightfully so. It is possibly the most misunderstood of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Some people seem to believe that under the First Amendment they have the right to say anything to anyone at anytime and no one can silence them. That’s not the way it works.

The Supreme Court has ruled in numerous cases that the protections of the Constitution apply in instances where the government is restricting speech and even then, there are times when it is appropriate to place limits on such expression. Earlier this year, students and faculty at Colorado State University in Fort Collins found out that these limits are not always clearly understood by everyone.

In an effort to keep the campus safe for everyone, CSU had policies in place that, among other things, limited what kind of advertising could be posted by campus groups, contained vague prohibitions on so-called hate speech and, perhaps most important, restricted where students could gather on campus for speeches, peaceful demonstrations and similar activities. Some students believed these policies stepped over the line between permissible and unconstitutional limits and decided to do something about it.

CSU’s advertising policy banned posters that contained obscene language and “references to alcoholic beverages or other drugs,” so when a student group held a rally last year in support of Amendment 44, which would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, they were barred from showing an attention-getting picture of a marijuana leaf. The university’s hate speech policy prohibited “expressions of hostility against a person” because of that person’s inclusion in a long list of protected classes of people. And when it came to public gatherings for speeches, demonstrations, etc., the policy was pretty clear that events were limited to a specific area near the student center, with clearly defined boundaries listed in student handouts.

The students enlisted the aid of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that battles speech codes at America’s colleges and universities. In March, FIRE sent a letter to the university asking officials to change those policies to follow the Constitution. Through its attorney, Loretta Martinez, CSU replied that although the school’s policy designated the Lory Student Center Plaza as the “primary” public forum space, students had other places on campus where such activities were allowed and had taken place. That may be true, but the previous policy was quite clear that the plaza was the proper location for public forums. The school has made changes that reflect Martinez’s response.

In addition, on July 19 CSU released new policies for the coming school year that loosen the limits in the advertising and hate speech policies. The advertising policy has been reworded to prohibit obscene language and “may not promote illegal behavior including the underage use of alcohol and illegal drug use.” CSU’s new policy on hate speech is more specific about what constitutes prohibited behavior and language.

The new policies are improvements over previous rules and should serve their intended purposes of protecting students, faculty and visitors while allowing a fuller range of expression. We congratulate the university for acting to improve free speech on campus and not simply ignoring student concerns.

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Schools: Colorado State University Cases: Colorado State University: Students Fight for Rights to Free Speech and Assembly