Under Pressure from FIRE, UMass Amherst Revises 2010’s Speech Code of the Year

By February 14, 2011

Under pressure from FIRE, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has revised its policy governing rallies on campusand not a moment too soon. FIRE supporters will remember that the policy had earned UMass Amherst intensely negative attention, both here on The Torch and in the national media.

In January, FIRE named the policy the 2010 Speech Code of the Year. In the post announcing this dubious distinction, Sam explained just why UMass Amherst’s policy was a cut aboveor belowall the rest:

While all 12 Speech Codes of the Month in 2010 flagrantly violated students’ right to free expression, one-the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s policy on “Rallies”-was so egregious that it deserves special mention as 2010’s Speech Code of the Year.

UMass Amherst’s policy on “Rallies” has special regulations applicable to what it calls “controversial rallies”-and it leaves “controversial” wholly undefined, giving the administration unfettered discretion to invoke the policy when it sees fit. If a rally is deemed controversial, it may only take place between noon and 1 p.m. on the Student Union steps, and must be registered at least five days in advance. That’s just one hour a day on one tiny area of a campus of more than 27,000 students! Worse yet, the policy also requires that when holding a controversial rally, “The sponsoring RSO [Registered Student Organization] must designate at least 6 members to act as a security team.” In other words, student groups wishing to publicly express a controversial opinion on campus must give at least five days notice, may only do it on one small area of campus for one hour a day, and must be willing to put themselves in harm’s way by acting as their own security in order to do so. Speech codes just don’t get much more ridiculous than this one.

The pressure on UMass began in December with FIRE’s national certified mailing, which warned public universities with unconstitutional policies (including UMass Amherst) that their policies violated the First Amendment. UMass also received a letter in December on the same topic from Alliance Defense Fund allied attorney Mari Chamberlain of Jacobi, Chamberlain, LLP. Then, in January, UMass suffered the dishonor of being named Speech Code of the Year by FIRE. The tipping point seems finally to have come when FIRE gave UMass Amherst a spot on our recent “12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” feature for The Huffington Post. (The policy was changed shortly after that article went to press.) We’re happy that the university realized change was necessary, although we do wonder what took it so long.

So what does the revised policy change? Under the new policy, student groups may register for a rally 24 hours before the planned event, rallies are allowed any time during class hours (instead of just noon to 1 p.m.), and student groups do not have to draft their own members to serve as security for their rally. Gone, too, is the vague use of the adjective “controversial,” replaced by a definition of what a “rally” is. These are significant improvements, and we’re encouraged by this step in the right direction.

However, there’s still a substantial amount of work to do. For one thing, requiring that rallies take place only during class hours is still too restrictive, as is insisting that rallies be quarantined to the steps of the Student Union. And as Greg noted in his Huffington Post article, UMass Amherst has a long history of silencing expression, “from revoking a student group’s permit to hold a pro-war demonstration after 9/11 to standing by while a student newspaper was stolen by students and then was censored by the student government for mocking a student government official.”

Hopefully, this revision is the incremental beginning to a new recognition of the importance of free speech at UMass Amherst. Better late than never!

Schools: Boston College University of Massachusetts – Amherst Cases: University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Student Newspapers Stolen While Police Officer Watches University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Student Government Tries to Punish Conservative Newspaper University of Massachusetts Amherst: Student Group Charged Unconstitutional Security Fee for Controversial Speaker University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Suppression of ‘Racist’ Speech University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Refusal to Permit Pro-War Speech