Victory at West Virginia University: The End of a Censorship Zone

December 5, 2002

MORGANTOWN, WV— In a resounding victory for free expression, West Virginia University (WVU) has abandoned a notorious and chilling policy that quarantined free expression to two small areas of campus. After FIRE’s campaign of public exposure and debate, extensive exchanges between FIRE and the WVU administration, and a lawsuit from the Rutherford Institute, the public university has adopted a new policy declaring that all of its campus is a “free speech zone.”


“This is a great victory for freedom of expression,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “At a time when Harvard Law School is considering a new speech code, and other colleges and universities continue to enforce these ‘censorship zones,’ to call them by their real name, it is encouraging to see a university step back and correct an injustice.”

FIRE first learned of WVU’s censorship zones from two WVU students, Michael Bomford and Matthew Poe, in November 2001. The students, who founded the West Virginia University Free Speech Consortium, have publicly criticized the policy since late 2000, when campus police first prohibited the distribution of protest literature. The campus police cited WVU’s policy, which identified only “two designated areas for free speech and assembly”— outlawing these rights on ninety-nine percent of the campus. As Kors has noted, “A university may have ‘reasonable time and place restrictions.’ This unreasonable policy was the equivalent of limiting speech to the hours of 1:01PM to 1:13PM, and then calling it merely a ‘time restriction.’”

FIRE joined the West Virginia University Free Speech Consortium and the West Virginia Association of Scholars (WVAS) in protest of this restrictive policy. FIRE wrote to President David C. Hardesty, Jr. and urged him “to tear down the barriers to speech and declare all of WVU a ‘Free Speech Zone.’” FIRE also reminded Hardesty that “there is nothing ‘reasonable’ about transforming ninety-nine percent of your University’s property— indeed, public property— into ‘Censorship Zones.’”

FIRE and its allies conducted a vast media campaign to shine the light of public exposure on WVU’s policy. FIRE also provided WVU with detailed analysis of new policy proposals, to ensure that the First Amendment would be honored. This past summer, the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute filed a lawsuit against WVU.

On November 8, 2002, WVU’s Board of Governors finally replaced its policy with one that recognized free speech rights. The new policy officially abolished censorship zones: “Assemblies of persons may occur on any grounds on the campus outside of buildings.”

“I’m proud of the fact that WVU is one of the first universities to get rid of free speech zones, and I hope that other institutions will follow its lead,” said Michael Bomford. “With FIRE behind us, it seemed like our voice finally started to get through.”


Censorship Zones Rife on Other Campuses

Although censorship zones no longer exist at WVU, they persist at many other colleges and universities.


Appalachian State University
In July of 2002, FIRE was contacted by students at Appalachian State University (ASU), in North Carolina, who reported that they were threatened with arrest for protesting U.S. foreign policy outside of the University’s “free speech zone.” Upon examining the policy, FIRE discovered that ASU had a comprehensive and tightly regulated speech policy, requiring “proper authorization” for all “public speaking” and “peaceful assembly.” The policy also granted students on the 340-acre public campus only one “free speech zone.” ASU also featured an unconstitutionally broad definition of “solicitation” that regulated the use of any materials “for the purpose of informing, advertising, educating, or obtaining the support of members of the university community.”

After FIRE became involved, ASU introduced a new speech policy that eliminated some of the most egregious aspects of the policy. However, the policy still censors permissible speech— relegating “unscheduled” speech to only three areas, limiting the distribution of printed materials, and requiring 24-hour advance registration (including filing a report) for “peaceful assembly,” among other restrictive provisions. Despite improvements, ASU’s policy remains intolerably hostile to its constitutional obligations to free speech.

Florida State University
In March 2002, at Florida State University (FSU), twelve student members of United Students against Sweatshops were arrested for refusing to move a demonstration to one of the University’s “free-speech areas.” The students had erected tents in front of the main administrative building to urge the University to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a group opposed to sweatshop labor. FSU, a public institution, has charged the students with trespassing on their own campus. FIRE has written to FSU President Talbot D’Alemberte to protest this abuse of students’ First Amendment and free speech rights.

Illinois State University
At Illinois State University (ISU), the Academic Senate recently considered a new “Policy on Freedom of Expression” that amounted to a policy against freedom of expression. Despite a pledge to defend free speech “as set forth in the U.S. Constitution,” the proposed policy restricted speech to only four “designated forum areas” and required advance registration. Students could picket or distribute literature on campus only with permission from the University. Fortunately, on October 23, 2002, the Academic Senate overwhelmingly rejected this policy of unconstitutional censorship.

University of Texas at Austin
In February 2001, at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), administrators told a pro-life student group, Justice for All, that it could not erect a fifteen-foot display showing a dead fetus near the campus’s well-known tower. When the display was erected elsewhere, several students set up a counter-protest and used bullhorns (the use of which was prohibited). Controversy over the banning of the original display and the prohibition against bullhorns led the University to create a task force that reviewed its free speech policies. On October 31, 2002, noting that the entire UT campus should be a “free speech zone,” the task force recommended replacing UT’s two censorship zones with seven “amplified sound areas,” where the use of bullhorns and speakers would be permitted. Students would no longer need permission to hold demonstrations (although permission would still be required to use amplified sound in the designated areas). UT President Larry R. Faulkner has endorsed these changes.

In the October 1, 2002 edition of The National Law Journal, FIRE co-director Harvey A. Silverglate noted, “regulations aimed at forcing students to shut up or move to where they won’t be heard and seen are constitutionally verboten.” Wisely, UT has recognized this and appears to have rededicated itself to broad and unfettered freedom of speech in response to this controversy. FIRE applauds UT’s embrace of free speech as the presumptive norm, and it applauds the work of the Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which assisted Justice for All in its efforts to overturn UT’s censorship zones.

The University of Houston
The University of Houston (UH), however, has responded to a similar incident by enforcing an appallingly restrictive policy of censorship. UH administrators refused to allow Pro-Life Cougars, a campus pro-life group, to erect a display and exhibition (similar to the display at UT) on that campus’s Butler Plaza. The students chose to fight and contacted the Alliance Defense Fund. They sued, and, in June 2002, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein, Jr., objecting to the “unfettered discretion” the policy gave to the dean, declared UH’s policy unconstitutional. During the trial, Dean of Students William F. Munson revealingly testified that he would ban “the silent expression of a single student on the plaza holding a small sign proclaiming, ‘The World is a Beautiful Place.’”

Despite the court’s ruling, UH’s censorship zone policy continues heavy-handedly to regulate “expressive” activity, restricting all non-registered “expressive activities” to one area of campus. It permits four other areas of this public campus to be used for such activities only if those who express themselves have registered in advance. It puts the rest of the campus off-limits to free expression. In the four “free expression areas,” reservations must be made “at least 10 business days in advance.” Even at the one location where unregistered “expressive activity” is allowed, “amplified sound is prohibited, displays or exhibits of any type are prohibited, structures of any type are prohibited, [and] signs with sticks, wires, or poles are prohibited.”

Pro-Life Cougars has sued once again (with the resolute support, once again, of ADF), after the University refused to allow a student to wear a sandwich board in Butler Plaza saying, “Life is Beautiful, Choose Life.” Finally, as if a student handbook could trump the U.S. Constitution, the policy insists that “expressive activities must conform to the behavior expectations of UH students outlined in the…Student Handbook,” which, among other things, outlaws the “intentional inflicting [of] mental…harm.” The Handbook also bans “any act which demeans, degrades, or disgraces any person,” noting that “‘Any person’ as used in this section may include oneself.”



Kors added: “Our survival as a free and decent society depends upon the free exchange of ideas, and upon the right to dissent, to identify error, and to search for truth. Such exchange and liberty are incompatible with the quarantine of the First Amendment, its principles of free speech, and the exercise of freedom of expression. A campus that criminalizes free speech, debate, and exchange of ideas is not a genuine institution of higher education.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of due process, individual rights, freedom of expression, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our campuses.

CONTACT:
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org
Benjamin Bull, Alliance Defense Fund: 480-444-0020; bbull@alliancedefensefund.org
Nisha Mohammed, Rutherford Institute: 434-978-3888; nisha@rutherford.org
John K. Wilson, CollegeFreedom.Org; collegefreedom@yahoo.com
West Virginia University:
David C. Hardesty, Jr., President: 304-293-5531; dhardest@wvu.edu
Appalachian State University:
Francis T. Borkowski, Chancellor: 828-262-2040; borkowskif@appstate.edu
Florida State University:
Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, President: 850-644-1085; dalember@mailer.fsu.edu
Illinois State University:
Victor John Boschini, Jr., President: 309-438-5677; vbosch@ilstu.edu
University of Texas at Austin:
Larry R. Faulkner, President: (512) 502-1820; president@po.utexas.edu
University of Houston:
Arthur K. Smith, President: (713) 743-8820; asmith@uh.edu