Student Activist Wins ‘Free-Speech’ Battle

By June 23, 2005

A Seminole Community College student has won the right to set up a table in the campus cafeteria and distribute literature on slaughterhouses after being told she couldn’t because it would cause “exceptional controversy.”

When Eliana Campos, a 2003 graduate of Pine Ridge High School in Deltona, requested the spot inside the student cafeteria, she instead was referred to the Oviedo campus’ “free-speech zone,” a remote area near the Clock Tower.

Higher-ups at the college later reversed the decision, saying they intend to form a committee to rewrite the policy that limits such expressions to “free-speech zones.”

Such zones — usually small and out-of-the-way areas of campus — are the latest challenge to free speech advocates like David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia. Last year, a federal judge ruled a similar policy at Texas Tech University unconstitutional, but French says free-speech zones are quite common.

That’s because some college officials say they need to balance the rights of an individual with the right of all students not to be impeded in their pursuit of education.

Campos, a 20-year-old freshman who lives in Oviedo, was working on a paper about three months ago when she learned about the “brutal mistreatment” of animals in slaughterhouses.

She was so appalled that she joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and asked to set up a table in the student cafeteria at the Oviedo campus. But administrator Gail Agor said no.

In an e-mail to Campos, Agor wrote: “PETA has a negative way of putting information out to consumers and ends up, quite often, alienating those of us with similar beliefs.” Allowing PETA leaflets to be distributed in the same room where students would be eating meat was “a set-up for conflict.”

Campos and French argued the decision unlawfully discriminated against her. Ultimately, James Henningsen, vice president for student success at the college, agreed.

He said the college must seek a new policy that provides “balance between protected individual rights of free speech and assembly and the institution’s right to protect the 32,000 other students on campus.”

It is that balancing act all colleges and universities face.

At the University of Central Florida, political activity and other exercises of free speech are limited to six specifically designated areas. Patricia MacKown, assistant vice president for student life, said students in recent years have used the areas to protest the war in Iraq, political stances and other matters.

Daytona Beach Community College does not designate any specific areas as “free-speech zones,” although college officials do ask that any groups planning events let the student development office know ahead of time for security purposes.

Typically, college and military recruitment tables, as well as street preachers and other groups work the busiest points on campus — both in the Lenholt Student Center and in the courtyard just west of it, said Bruce Cook, assistant dean of student development.

“We had PETA here last fall,” Cook said. “I allowed them to set up a table. We would not make a content-based decision.”

French, the rights foundation director, said most colleges and universities unlawfully repress students’ rights to free speech.

“It’s very common,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where if I’m looking at a policy and I don’t see free-speech zones, I’m shocked.”

At Seminole Community College, Henningsen commended Campos for making people more aware of free-speech laws.

“That took a lot of courage and was a great learning experience,” he said.

For Campos, it was reaffirmation.

“Everybody should stand up for what they believe in,” she said.

So next week, when she resumes classes, she’ll be in the cafeteria, calling attention to her cause.

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Schools: Seminole State College