Sinclair Community College: Enforcing Unconstitutional Sign Policy for Decades

By June 28, 2012

This month, FIRE uncovered an outrageous unwritten policy banning all signs from events held on campus at Sinclair Community College (SCC) in Dayton, Ohio. The policy came to light when students and other demonstrators peacefully holding signs at a religious freedom rally were asked to take down their signs by campus police earlier this month (video included).

Shockingly, FIRE has learned that the problem goes back much, much further—over two decades! A March 28 article published by SCC student newspaper The Clarion quotes SCC Chief of Police Charles Gift confirming that enforcement of the policy dates back to 1990:

According to Chief of Police Charles Gift, Sinclair has enforced a no-sign policy since 1990. The rule is covered by Sinclair’s Campus Access Policy, which sets parameters for the use of campus facilities.

That same article also documented another instance of SCC campus police enforcing the "no signs" policy against students—specifically, a crackdown on girls holding signs in support of gay rights.

Unfortunately for student speech at SCC, there are more incidents where that came from. Indeed, a recent search of The Clarion‘s online archive turned up a recent instance of demonstrators affected by the unconstitutional ban. In June 2009, the paper reported that "four demonstrators were arrested and one was given a citation" after an event on May 20, 2009. Chief Gift described their signs and literature as a "problem":

"The problem arrives when someone doesn’t go through the proper channels for approval and they come on campus with loud speakers, signs and want to pass out literature – that is prohibited."

Another article reported that the protesters "were told they could stay on campus if they got rid of their signs and did not distribute literature unless someone asked for it." These demonstrators don’t appear to have been students, unlike many of the protesters censored this year. But that doesn’t seem to make a difference to Sinclair. In fact, it’s really hard to determine what (if any) basis Sinclair is using to make decisions, as The Clarion‘s archive strongly suggests a double standard in SCC’s enforcement of the sign ban. Just weeks before the May 20, 2009, arrests, the Global Awareness Action Club held an event on SCC’s campus—including signs—without incident. As The Clarion reported in May 2009:

The Global Awareness Action Club staged a die-in, a type of protest, against violence on Thursday, May 7.  Their goal was to raise awareness of the prevalence of violence.

Twelve students and faculty dressed in black laid on their backs in the sunny central courtyard in front of Building 7.  Two students took off their shoes. All had signs announcing statistics of homicide, abuse, suicide or violence. [Emphasis added.]

There’s no mention in the paper of members of the Global Awareness Action Club being arrested or asked to discard their signs by Chief Gift or other campus administrators. So, not only does SCC have a laughably unconstitutional policy against signs, this article is evidence that the school has not applied the ban evenly against all groups or viewpoints.

In the 2009 article, Chief Gift asks:

If we didn’t have policies like [the sign ban], where would we be if two or three groups that opposed each other all came together at the same place, at the same time to assemble and exercise their freedom of speech?

Under the First Amendment, a marketplace of ideas on campus where students can come together to express opposing opinions is the point, not a problem. That’s why FIRE wrote a letter to SCC President Steven Lee Johnson on June 15 explaining the school’s obligations under the First Amendment and asking him to "make clear to every member of the SCC community that their right to peacefully and unobtrusively carry signs—whether in support of their own causes or in opposition to others’—will never be suppressed by further unconstitutional application of SCC’s Campus Access Policy."

For the sake of SCC students (and Ohio taxpayers, who have already funded the University of Cincinnati’s doomed defense of its tiny free speech zone this year), we sincerely hope that President Johnson will listen.

Schools: Sinclair Community College Cases: Sinclair Community College: Police Ban Signs at Religious Freedom Rally