Proposed Speech Policy Reform at UCSD Finalized

By June 12, 2009

Last week, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) student newspaper The Guardian reported that after several years of often contentious debate, a UCSD committee of faculty, students and administrators has finalized a proposal to reform UCSD’s current policies regarding speech on campus. FIRE has been in close contact with student leaders on the committee throughout the process, and we’re pleased to see that progress has been made. Indeed, it’s been a long time coming.

FIRE first wrote UCSD President Marye A. Fox in June of 2007 to express our concern about UCSD’s proposed "Policy on Speech, Advocacy and Distribution of Literature on University Property," which at the time contained several unconstitutional provisions. For one thing, the policy required advanced reservations for any expressive activity expected to draw more than 10 people. As we pointed our in our letter, a school as big as UCSD "cannot credibly argue that any gathering of over 10 studentsless than 0.05 percent of the student bodyon the vast majority of campus requires a reservation, lest campus order be somehow threatened." For another, the policy forbade "mak[ing] any person an involuntary audience or an involuntary participant of any event or activity," thus conferring a pocket veto to any expressive activity on campus to every student or faculty member seeking to silence speech. Making matters worse, the policy also included provisions to create free speech zones on campus and contained a hopelessly vague prohibition against "personal Political Activity" on the part of faculty and staff. And perhaps worst of all, UCSD proposed these sweeping changes at the end of the 2007 school year, leaving students just 17 days to comment.

After FIRE’s letter and student protests prompted UCSD to extend the time allotted for public comment, FIRE again wrote UCSD in November 2007 to once more point out the constitutional infirmities in the proposed policy.

Our efforts bore fruit: In February 2008, we were very pleased to learn that UCSD had dropped the unconstitutional proposals at issue, effectively going back to the drawing board.

Since then, FIRE has offered advice to student leaders as they worked in committee with faculty and administrators to devise a new speech policy. We are pleased to see that the final result, while not perfect, is a vast improvement over the disastrous changes first proposed in June 2007. The new policy, as proposed, would include a preamble stating:

The University is dedicated to the dissemination of information and ideas, and the presence of engaged scholarly, cultural, and political debate. The ability of members of the University community and the community at-large to engage in expressive activity is central to the identity of a large, public University. Of all social institutions in a democracy, the University has a special responsibility to promote an open atmosphere and to honor the First Amendment.

The new policy also states unequivocally that "Expressive Activity may occur on all University Grounds," subject to only reasonable limited time, place, and manner restrictions that "promote and protect free speech" and "shall be enacted in a manner that minimizes the limitation on expressive activity."

Hats off to the committee for working hard over the past year to design a policy that recognizes UCSD’s legal and moral obligation to respect free speech on campus. We look forward to seeing the proposal officially implemented as UCSD policy.

Schools: University of California, San Diego