Students to protest UNCG’s free speech zones

November 15, 2005

The two places UNCG has designated free-speech zones do not meet the approval of some student political groups who also object to notifying administrators 48 hours in advance to use the small, overgrown areas.

A coalition of activist organizations, from the College Libertarians to the campus International Socialist Organization, plans to protest the school’s policy Wednesday. The College Democrats and Republicans have also joined the cause, which was spearheaded by the Libertarians. Organizers said leaders of the Guilford County Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties might speak at the event.

School policy dictates that protests and student group gatherings occur in the area in front of the Eliott University Center or the east portion of the lawn of the Julius Foust building and that notice is given 48 hours in advance. Allison Jaynes of the College Libertarians said that the group has contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national organization instrumental in overturning similar policies at West Virginia University, Appalachian State and the University of Houston. FIRE issued UNCG a red light rating for free speech on its website, indicating that the institution has at least one policy clearly and substantially limiting free speech.

“This is a public campus,” said Omar Kalala, a sophomore member of the International Socialist Organization. “The entire area should be a free speech zone.”

Public universities must conform to the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on time, place and manner of protests to maintain public safety. Many universities defend free speech zones as legal restrictions that are not based on the speaker’s content. The UNCG policy requires only 48 hours prior notification, not permission from school officials.

“The university promotes free speech,” said UNCG Spokesman Steve Gilliam. “We’re not trying to intimidate or silence anybody.”

The FIRE website states that time, place and manner restrictions must be narrowly tailored to pass Constitutional muster, and that general free speech zone policies do not meet this criteria.

“A college campus — as the ultimate free speech zone — should be the last place where expression is regarded with suspicion,” the FIRE website says.

At West Virginia University, students first started lobbying against a similar policy that limited protests to two areas in late 2000. FIRE exchanged letters with WVU president David Hardesty and engaged in a massive publicity campaign, according to the website. The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based conservative legal organization, filed a lawsuit against WVU in 2002, and the university repealed the policy in November of that year.

A lawsuit filed against the University of Houston regarding the institution’s free speech zone policy in 2002 resulted in a decision against the school. Despite the decision, protesters at the school must register to use one of the four zones at least ten days in advance.

Both the International Socialist Organization and the College Libertarians have come under fire for violating the UNCG’s free speech policy. Libertarians passing out literature and circulating a petition to put the Libertarian candidate back on the ballot were threatened with arrest twice, including one incident where a police officer appeared on the scene, Jaynes said. Administrators later held a conference with group leaders to explain the rules.

School officials also told members of the International Socialist Organization that they could not sell their Socialist Worker newspaper outside of the free speech zone without a permit. An application for such a contract took a month to process.

Student groups that do not conform to the rules governing assembly face a myriad of consequences, including losing their university affiliation. Groups without such recognition do not receive student activity fees and cannot reserve space in campus buildings.

“When I talked to [administrators] in private, they said it is the rule and they’re going to follow it,” Jaynes said. “I don’t know if that means they believe in it or that they are just following it. Our goal is to get the rule changed.”

On Wednesday, protesters plan to gather outside of the free speech zones with signs and gags in blue and gold Spartan colors. They will also circulate a petition asking for the repeal of the policy and the designation of the entire campus as a free speech zone.

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Schools: University of North Carolina – Greensboro West Virginia University Cases: West Virginia University: Limit on Speech to Campus “Free Speech Zones”