GREENSBORO, N.C., December 15, 2005—The University of North Carolina–Greensboro (UNCG) is attempting to discipline two students for peacefully protesting outside two small “free speech zones” on campus. Ironically, the students were actually protesting the existence of those zones, which unconstitutionally restrict free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has intervened on the students’ behalf.
“These students chose a very effective way to draw attention to UNCG’s unjust and unnecessary restrictions on freedom of speech,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “It is shameful that they are now threatened with punishment for their peaceful protest of a repressive policy.”
UNCG College Libertarians Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott helped organize a quiet, 40-person rally for free speech on November 16 on a lawn in front of the campus library. When an administrator approached Jaynes and demanded that she move the protest to the “free speech zone,” she refused, citing the First Amendment. The protest continued, but a few days later Jaynes and Sinnott were charged with a “violation of Respect” for refusing to move.
“Students cannot be required to ‘respect’ an unconstitutional order stemming from an unconstitutional policy,” stated Lukianoff. “Allison, Robert, and the other students involved should be commended for standing up for their First Amendment rights, not treated as campus criminals.”
UNCG’s policies specify two small areas of campus as “free speech and assembly areas,” with 48 hours’ notice required for demonstrations even in those areas. Any protests outside those zones require a written request 48 hours before the event, which the university can deny.
FIRE wrote UNCG Chancellor Patricia Sullivan on December 5, requesting that she dismiss any disciplinary charges and revoke UNCG’s unconstitutional policy and citing FIRE’s victories against similar speech zones at Texas Tech and other public universities. FIRE also reminded Sullivan that while reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions may be acceptable, “[t]here is nothing ‘reasonable’…about transforming the vast majority of the university’s property—indeed, public property—into a ‘censorship area.’”
University Counsel Lucien Capone responded on December 9, citing a Fourth Circuit case called ACLU v. Mote that determined that “free speech zones” may be acceptable when applied to strangers from off campus—not students. Capone acknowledged that this case may not apply to students and said that a committee formed by Chancellor Sullivan was already revisiting the policy, but that it would take more time to come to a conclusion. Capone also said that UNCG did not review requests for protests outside the zones for content, but pointed to no policy language supporting this assertion.
“While we are glad that UNCG is ‘revisiting’ its unjust policy, Mote simply does not apply to this situation. There is no reason for UNCG to err on the side of repression while it considers whether free speech is too much for its adult students to handle,” noted Lukianoff. “Freedom of speech must not be made to wait on the dithering of a university committee.”
In the meantime, hearings for students Jaynes and Sinnott are set for January.
“UNCG must get the message that if quarantining free speech is unjust, threatening to punish students for defying that quarantine is doubly unjust,” Lukianoff concluded. “UNCG must drop any threat of discipline against these students and recognize that universities in a free society must serve as the ultimate ‘free speech zones’—not as places where freedom of expression is mistrusted and feared.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro can be viewed at thefire.org/uncg.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Patricia Sullivan, Chancellor, University of North Carolina–Greensboro: 336-334-5266; email@example.com