Victory for Free Speech: Christopher Newport University Revises Demonstration Policy

By September 26, 2012

Christopher Newport University Last week, Christopher Newport University (CNU) censored student speech by preventing a student group, the Feminist Alliance, from protesting a campus appearance by Vice Presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan. (Another group, the Gay-Straight Student Union, canceled its protest shortly thereafter.) Yesterday, in a welcome development, CNU President Paul Trible admitted his institution’s error and announced a dramatic revision of his university’s policies governing student expression. CNU University Counsel William Thro informed FIRE of the policy revision in a letter yesterday evening.  

As described here on The Torch yesterday, the controversy over the university’s "Demonstration" policy began last week when CNU refused to waive a 10-day notice requirement for student groups wishing to engage in "demonstrations" on campus, despite the fact that Representative Ryan’s September 18 appearance was only publicly announced two days prior, on September 16. 

CNU’s decision generated controversy, student outcry, and strongly critical letters from both FIRE and the ACLU of Virginia. Our letter pointed out that CNU’s "Demonstration" policy defined student "demonstrations" as "the assembly of a group of persons to express their views on an issue"—a definition so broad as to cover virtually all expression between students on campus. In addition to condemning the punitive and unreasonable 10-day notice requirement, we also criticized the policy’s establishment of a miniscule free speech zone, which limited student "demonstrations" to a single 20′ by 20′ square of CNU’s 260-acre campus.   

These restrictions have now been removed. Thro’s letter to FIRE yesterday directs our attention to page 38 of CNU’s newly revised Student Handbook, which now reads in relevant part: 

SECTION IV — PART VII 

Freedom of Expression  

[...]

4.   Speech and Assembly  

Individuals and organizations wishing to exercise their freedom of speech or "the right of the People peaceably to assemble," must register with the Dean of Students at least 24 hours in advance. Standard space reservation procedures must be followed.  If notice is given less than 24 hours in advance, the university will make every effort to grant such a request provided that safety and security issues and logistical concerns can be appropriately addressed.  

The location of the assembly will be determined by University Officials in consultation with the organizers and will be based on safety and security concerns. 

It is not the intent of this policy to censor or otherwise limit free expression. However, assemblies should be peaceable, orderly and comply with University standards of conduct. 

The 10-day notice requirement has been reduced to 24 hours, with a provision for waiving that requirement if necessary; the broad definition of "demonstration" has been removed entirely; and the free speech zone has been dismantled, replaced instead with a requirement for students to work with CNU administrators to determine an appropriate location. This last change is potentially problematic, as the new policy does not provide clear, content-neutral criteria to guide the decisionmaking of the university officials charged with determining the location of student expressive activity. I hope that CNU, having recognized the importance of free expression on campus, corrects this oversight in future revisions as soon as possible. 

On the whole, though, this new policy is a vast improvement. CNU students and administrators both deserve praise for their quick action to correct an indefensible decision to censor student expression. CNU students took the initiative, as the Student Assembly penned a measure asking the administration to grant waivers to the 10-day notice requirement, and then President Trible acted decisively to answer both that concern and more. 

President Trible deserves particular commendation for his willingness to admit the university’s mistake, rapidly changing course in favor of freedom of expression after recognizing the error. All too often, FIRE sees university administrators dig in their heels and refuse to admit that censorship is never the right answer. Confronted with outrage over silencing speech, too many administrators choose to double down on their errors—as if they think that correcting mistakes would erode confidence in their leadership, rather than having the precisely opposite effect. It’s worth, therefore, reviewing the letter President Trible sent yesterday to the CNU community. He wrote: 

The request for an exception to our ten day rule for demonstrations should have been granted for the Ryan rally and underscores the need to change our University policies regarding freedom of speech and the right to assemble.

To that end, the Student Assembly was asked to review these policies and the Student Assembly has recommended that the Director of Student Activities have the authority to "grant exceptions" regarding both the 10 day rule and location designations. 

I appreciate the prompt and thoughtful response of the Student Assembly.  Indeed, I believe we should go further. 

First, CNU will require 24 hour notice — not 10 days. 

Second, the Dean of Students is authorized to waive the 24 hour notice requirement in those situations where it is possible to do so without compromising the safety and security of campus or disrupting the normal flow of traffic.

Third, the right of the people peaceably to assemble will no longer be limited to one location but rather will be determined by the circumstances of each situation.  The location will be determined by University officials in consultation with the organizers.

For example, in regard to an event at the Ferguson Center for the Arts — such as the Ryan event — the demonstration likely will be permitted on the large green lawn in front of the Ferguson Center.  If the subject of the protest is an event in the David Student Union, then the assigned area likely will be on the lawn adjoining the David Student Union. 

Good leadership requires acknowledging mistakes, learning from those mistakes and correcting them as soon as possible.  That’s our purpose in acting quickly to change our policies. 

Again, kudos to both President Trible and the CNU Student Assembly. Because of their action, CNU students can feel proud today of their campus leadership and their demonstrated willingness to fix problems in order to protect student speech. 

Schools: Christopher Newport University