UCF rules fuel debate on freedom of speech

December 17, 2006

One minute, members of Students for a Democratic Society were sitting in a breezeway, holding signs asking other students to discuss a possible war in Iran.The next, the University of Central Florida police were accusing the campus activists of trespassing and were threatening them with arrest if they didn’t move to a designated “free-assembly area.”

That event in April launched an ongoing dispute over free speech at UCF that echoes similar struggles between university administrators and students across the country.

Officials at the campus east of Orlando say they’re just trying to prevent protesters from blocking entrances or disturbing classes and other university functions.

“We’re trying to protect everyone’s interest here, not only those who want to demonstrate or protest,” UCF spokesman Tom Evelyn said.

Students contend that the real motive is to shut them up.

“They have no respect for the First Amendment, and they want to control what we say,” said Patrick DeCarlo, 21, a UCF creative-writing major, SDS member and student senator.

Modern-day attempts to regulate student speech at U.S. universities go back at least to the Vietnam War era, when protests on American campuses vexed administrators even as they reflected a growing public anti-war sentiment.

Universities ramped up free-speech restrictions in the late 1980s and early 1990s for fear of offending anyone, particularly on the basis of race or religion, said Robert Richards, founding co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University.

“The political-correctness movement was at its height,” Richards said.

Suits led to special zones

But court rulings struck down limits on what protesters could say while allowing constraints on time, place and manner, said Paul Haridakis, an associate professor at Kent State University’s school of communication studies and an expert on First Amendment issues.The resulting creation of special zones for public protest and demonstrations has spread beyond college campuses to other locations, including the 2004 Democratic and Republican national conventions and the sites of many presidential appearances.

“Personally, I think they go too far,” Haridakis said. “It could be a mechanism for controlling expression.”

Debating and publicizing social issues is a major activity of the SDS chapter at UCF. The group is part of the national reincarnation of the organization co-founded in the 1960s by political activist Tom Hayden, later a California state senator.

SDS members say fire codes and other laws adequately address potential problems with their activities, and that they were not breaking any rules during the incident that brought out the campus police.

“We’re just looking for peaceable assembly,” said Austin Smith, 21, an SDS member and a junior studying history.

Maribeth Ehasz, vice president for student development and enrollment services, said the SDS members were interfering with business when they held signs in a breezeway outside the John T. Washington Center, which contains a bookstore, credit union and other services.

UCF has ‘assembly’ areas

The breezeway leads toward a plaza in front of the student union. That plaza—but not the breezeway—is one of four campus areas designed so students can use amplified sound without disturbing classes.

Several years ago, the university increased the number of areas from one to four after a task force studied the issue, Ehasz said. She said all four spots are in high-traffic areas near the core of campus.

Though students call them “free-speech zones,” university officials designate them as “free-assembly areas.”

“We attempt to clarify with students that they have free speech everywhere,” Ehasz said.

Jay Jurie, faculty adviser to UCF’s SDS chapter and an associate professor of public administration, said officials are playing semantic games.

“The university is trying to carve out an artificial distinction between speech and assembly,” said Jurie, who was active with the University of Colorado chapter of the original SDS in 1969. “It’s absurd and preposterous.”

Rules for speakers vary

Two other Central Florida schools, Stetson University in DeLand and Rollins College in Winter Park, say they have no restrictions on assembly. But other Florida universities regulate individuals and groups that want to express themselves on campus.

The University of Florida in Gainesville allows demonstrations anywhere, but the use of sound equipment must have approval from the administration. UF also controls when, where and how printed materials can be distributed. University outsiders can pass out materials in three areas only.

Florida State University in Tallahassee has two “open platforms” where any student may be heard on any issue. Organized outdoor student assemblies are supposed to register in advance, and student groups that want to use public-address systems in the union courtyard are subject to schedules approved by the administration.

But an attorney for FSU said anyone may speak anywhere on campus if there’s no disruption of normal activities.

Disputes hit left, right

Debates on free speech and assembly have surfaced at various U.S. universities.

Although the group protesting at UCF leans left, conservative groups are more frequently the targets of control, said Greg Lukianoff, president of the nonpartisan, Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“Universities are supposed to be citadels of freedom of speech,” Lukianoff said. “There’s nothing reasonable about making 99 percent of public property into a censorship zone.”

FIRE has taken up the cause of the UCF students, who in October received an award from an Altamonte Springs law firm, Weston, Garrou, DeWitt & Walters, for their advocacy of free speech.

The foundation also intervened last year in a Seminole Community College case in which administrators initially refused to let a student hand out literature from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in the cafe at the Oviedo campus, insisting she go to a free-speech area.

“It’s not a progressive issue or a liberal issue,” said Smith of SDS, who also is a UCF student senator. “It’s standing up for the rights that are afforded everyone. If anything, it’s a conservative issue, standing up for the Constitution.”

The university is reviewing its rules in light of the recent criticism, including a student Senate resolution approved in November calling for abolishment of the zones, Ehasz said.

Meanwhile, SDS plans to “continue educating and advocating and trying to get more students behind us,” DeCarlo said.

FIRE’s Lukianoff said universities have little to fear.

“Make free speech the rule more than the exception,” he said, “and I think you’ll find the sky won’t fall.”

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Schools: University of Central Florida Cases: University of Central Florida: Speech Quarantined to ‘Free Assembly Areas’