UNCG in free speech battle

December 17, 2005

Two UNC-Greensboro students face discipline for protesting outside the university’s designated “free speech and assembly areas,” based on a policy that a national civil liberties organization calls unconstitutional.

The students, Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott, were charged with a “violation of respect” under the student code of conduct at UNC-Greensboro after a Nov. 16 protest attended by about 40 people. The two students face disciplinary action that could range from a warning to a probation with restrictions.

The demonstration outside the library by UNCG College Libertarians was aimed specifically at the university’s policy governing the location of protests on campus. Students unfurled a banner that read “UNCG Hates Free Speech” and held a quiet demonstration, collecting about 175 signatures on a petition.

“We just simply wanted to raise awareness of the free speech zones and how wrong they are,” said Jaynes, a senior from Moorestown, N.J.

The case has prompted the intervention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a group that advocates free speech and academic freedom at universities around the country. The organization has successfully challenged rules about “free speech zones” at several campuses, including West Virginia University and Texas Tech University.

The group contends that UNCG’s establishment of sanctioned protest areas runs afoul of the First Amendment.

“UNCG’s implementation of ‘free speech zones’ is a perversion of constitutional and statutory law and has no place at an institution committed to intellectual rigor, robust debate and a free and vibrant community,” wrote Robert Shibley of FIRE in a Dec. 5 letter to UNCG Chancellor Patricia Sullivan.

The university’s attorney, Lucien “Skip” Capone III, said the policy is under review. In November, the chancellor called for a campus committee to study the issue.

Capone said many campuses have protest guidelines, typically an outgrowth of Vietnam War-era student protests of the 1960s and 1970s.

Capone said it’s a way for campuses to prevent disruption around classrooms, for example. “Most every campus that I’m aware of has some kind of policy dealing with this,” he said. “You have to be able to deal with disruptive conduct in one way or another — if someone tries to take over the chancellor’s office.”

The UNCG policy allows protests without prior approval in two designated areas — one near the student union and the other in a less-traveled location known as Foust Park. Demonstrations can also be held in other locations, according to the policy, as long as organizers submit a written request 48 hours in advance.

Capone said the issue is a hot one, with contradictory federal rulings from around the country. Earlier this year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that free speech zones are permissible in some circumstances on public university campuses. The 4th Circuit includes North Carolina.

But Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, said having two free speech areas is unreasonable. “In a lot of cases, we’re talking about universities that designate less than 1 percent of their campuses as free speech zones,” he said, “and that is turning 99 percent of campus into censorship zones.”

He said many university officials too often choose “peace and quiet” over free speech.

Jaynes said she was dismayed to find out that her group was now allowed to set up a table on the lawn of the library for a celebration of Constitution Day. She said the designated space for protests near the student union is about a 20-foot square patch of land.

The whole idea of cordoning off areas for protests, she said, seems contrary to a university’s ultimate purpose of education and open debate. “Universities used to promote that kind of thing and used to be the foundation of liberty and free thinking,” she added.

The university is open to reconsidering its policy, Capone said.

“We want input from the very people who might be interested in suing us,” he said. “I’m hoping we can all put our heads together and come up with something.”

Schools: University of North Carolina – Greensboro West Virginia University Texas Tech University Cases: University of North Carolina at Greensboro: Punishment of Free Speech Protestors Texas Tech University: Speech Code Litigation West Virginia University: Limit on Speech to Campus “Free Speech Zones”