Winston-Salem State University to Revise Free Speech Zone Policy

By January 22, 2008

Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) announced to the press that it will be revising its controversial new free speech zone policy, which limits free speech to just one ‘Breezeway’ on the university’s campus. The university’s announcement came on Friday, January 4—the same day that FIRE sent the university a letter criticizing the policy.

FIRE wrote to the university after learning that the Board of Trustees had approved a new policy on December 14 providing that “the University permits assemblies and public addresses by University, Student, and Non-University groups or individuals at the Thompson Center Breezeway only.” (Emphasis added.) You can see by looking at a map of the WSSU campus that the Thompson Center Breezeway comprises only a small portion of the university’s campus—in that map, we’ve circled the whole Student Center (not just the breezeway), and even that is only a fraction of the campus. As FIRE wrote to WSSU Chancellor Donald Julian Reaves, “[f]ederal case law regarding freedom of expression simply does not support the transformation of public institutions of higher education into places where constitutional protections are the exception rather than the rule.” For example, in Roberts v. Haragan, a federal judge told Texas Tech University that its policy “must be interpreted to allow free speech for students on ‘park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas.’” FIRE has successfully challenged the establishment of free speech zones at universities across the nation, including at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, West Virginia University, Seminole Community College in Florida, Citrus College in California, Texas Tech University, the University of Nevada–Reno, and Colorado State University.

On January 6, an article appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal announcing that the university would be revising the policy. The article stated that

The chancellor of Winston-Salem State University said Friday that the university will revise a new policy that limits unscheduled protests and demonstrations to one area of campus.

Donald Reaves said that the new policy wasn’t intended to limit free speech at WSSU.

Reaves told the Journal that “as far as I’m concerned, all parklike areas are open. Those areas are not restricted. Despite what the policy says.” He also stated that “[w]e intend on revising the policy…and making the campus as open as possible.”

This is very good news for free speech at WSSU. It is essential, however, that the policy be rewritten to mirror Reaves’s comments. It is not enough for Reaves to say that park-like areas are open to free speech if there is a written policy on the books stating the opposite; faced with an inconsistency between the Chancellor’s statements and the policy, students are likely to follow the written “letter of the law,” and this will have a chilling effect on campus speech. FIRE will be watching closely to make sure that the revised policy grants WSSU students the free speech rights to which they are legally and morally entitled.