Towson University Should Not ‘Absolutely Want’ to be a ‘Yellow Light’ School

By February 10, 2012

The Towerlight, a student newspaper at Maryland’s Towson University, ran an article earlier this week on Towson’s "yellow light" rating in FIRE’s recent speech code report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2012: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses. The article does a good job of explaining Towson’s speech code rating, which could certainly be the subject of a thoroughly exhausting piece given that the university maintains no fewer than seven "yellow light" policies. As a public institution legally bound by the First Amendment, this is simply unacceptable.

Perhaps more noteworthy than that, though, are some of the statements made in the article by the Towson administration. These comments warrant a full response here.

The main issue relates to Towson’s Policy on Time, Place, and Manner (.pdf), which states that "Students, Student Groups, faculty or staff planning Expressive Activity must contact the following offices in advance of any planned Expressive Activity: the Office of Campus Life (Students and Student groups); the Provost’s Office (faculty); and the Office of the Vice President for Administration and Finance (staff)."

FIRE has written before about the limited reach of the "time, place, and manner" doctrine; it allows government restrictions on speech that are content-neutral, "are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest," and "leave open ample alternative channels for communication." Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989) (internal quotation marks omitted). In contrast to this type of narrow restriction, Towson’s policy bans any and all spontaneous speech on campus, requiring students, student groups, and faculty to contact a designated university office in advance of any expressive activity, whether that be silent leafleting or a campus rally or demonstration. This surely goes beyond the limited scope of the "time, place, and manner" rationale.

Yet, there is this from the Towerlight article:

Deb Moriarty, vice president for student affairs, said this is exactly where Towson University wants to be concerning their policy, and that the Time, Place and Manner policy doesn’t solely regulate free speech.

"I’m sure FIRE wants us all to be green lights," she said. "We have a responsibility to the internal community to have a policy and help the community understand when it is appropriate to have freedom of expression and when it is not." 

First of all, yes, FIRE does want all universities to be green lights. Our favorite press releases to write are those congratulating and praising a school for revising the last of its speech codes and going green. But beyond that, "it is appropriate to have freedom of expression" on more than just those occasions when Towson feels like allowing it. This is especially true of an activity such as peacefully handing out flyers or other literature, a time-honored practice under the First Amendment that has little chance of actually disrupting the educational process or the functioning of the university, and that therefore should not require the prior approval of the administration. 

More from Moriarty in the Towerlight article:

According to Moriarty, there aren’t any plans to change Time, Place and Manner, since the policy is working well.

"Time, Place and Manner’s purpose is to create a structure so students can speak freely and have protected protest," Moriarty said. "The policy gives us an opportunity to support the students while not being disruptive. The policy has been working. We absolutely want to be a yellow light. We want to create the right type of opportunities for free speech and for any kind of activity involving that."

"We absolutely want to be a yellow light" is the kind of statement one never wants to hear from a university administrator, particularly when the institution has as many "yellow light" policies as Towson has. This is not a matter of one or two ambiguous policies needing a little clarification; again, there are currently seven speech codes at Towson, restricting student speech under such divergent rationales as harassment, verbal "[a]buse," "emotional distress," "non-offensive language," and, of course, "Time, Place, and Manner." There is a way to appropriately balance students’ free speech rights with the university’s other interests, but maintaining unconstitutional speech codes is not the way to do so, and the arrogance of Towson in deciding that the Bill of Rights is just not good enough for its students is breathtaking. Sadly, Moriarty’s cavalier attitude toward Towson’s "yellow light" rating is reminiscent of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s apparent comfort with its own speech code rating, which we covered recently.

Towson owes it to its students to reform these policies, one by one, and to show a greater appreciation for First Amendment rights. FIRE would love to help with this policy revision, and we stand by ready to help at any time. Otherwise, any time a student opens his or her mouth or engages in expressive activity on Towson’s campus, he or she risks censorship and punishment under one of these policies.  

Moreover, if an administrator decides to use these easily abused policies to censor Towson students, the university risks a First Amendment lawsuit. Is federal court really where Towson "wants to be"? If not, it would be wise to change these policies sooner rather than later.

Schools: Towson University