With Federal Lawsuit Filed, University of Cincinnati Allows Student Group Temporary Reprieve From Free Speech Zone — But Continues to Defend Illiberal Policy

By March 7, 2012

Apparently, it takes nothing short of a federal civil rights lawsuit before the University of Cincinnati will allow a student group to gather signatures outside the confines of its restrictive "free speech zone." 

That’s the depressing lesson learned by UC’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (UC YAL), whose members may now collect signatures in support of a state ballot amendment following a temporary agreement reached by the group’s attorneys and the university. Under the terms of the "standstill agreement," UC YAL members may now gather signatures and talk to their fellow students outside of the university’s free speech zone—a pathetic 0.1% of the university’s 137-acre West Campus—and may do so without first requesting permission from the administration. Just last month, UC YAL president Christopher Morbitzer was told by university administrators that if any YAL members were seen "walk[ing] around campus" gathering signatures, the campus cops would be called.

The temporary agreement reached by the university and UC YAL, represented by Ryan Walters and Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and Ohio attorney Curt C. Hartman, does not end the lawsuit. Instead, the agreement simply "freezes" the situation while the legal proceedings continue, and a hearing on the student group’s request for a permanent injunction is scheduled for May 30. So while the agreement doesn’t reflect any admission of wrongdoing by UC in legal terms, the fact that Christopher and UC YAL may only now gather signatures outside of the free speech zone speaks for itself. 

Unfortunately, the university continues to defend its illiberal policy, per the Student Press Law Center‘s reporting:

Greg Hand, a UC spokesman, said reaching a temporary agreement proves the university is accommodating to its students. He said the agreement is essentially the university "filling out the paperwork" for YAL, which the group "could have done themselves."

When deciding not to call the cops on students who have asked to gather signatures outside of the free speech zone (gasp!) is cited by a paid spokesman as proof that the University of Cincinnati is "accommodating to its students," you know the bar has been set pretty low. As for the spokesman’s contention that UC is "filling out the paperwork" for UC YAL, well, this is just a blatant misrepresentation. For proof, check out the correspondence between Christopher and the UC administrators who threatened to alert security if he and his fellow YAL members had the temerity to engage in political discussions with their fellow students outside of the free speech zone. If all UC YAL had to do was "fill out the paperwork," why didn’t UC tell them as much? Why did the university relegate them to the free speech zone and issue a dire warning about what would happen if they left it?

There’s more: 

Hand added that the free speech zone is not a requirement for every event. He explained that off-campus groups and larger events typically use the zone, and that events happen "every day" that don’t require the zone’s use. 

However, UC’s Use of Facilities Manual states that "demonstrations, picketing or rallies" must reserve the space, but does not define those terms. The manual also states that anyone violating the policy could be charged with trespassing.

YAL claimed the university can misconstrue those terms to fit certain events, but Hand said it’s up to the students to decide if their event fits those definitions.

Again, Hand is spinning, and hard. Does he really mean to suggest that if Christopher had simply decided for himself that UC’s policy didn’t apply to him and UC YAL, that the cops wouldn’t have been called? Given the written warning about campus security delivered to Christopher by the university, it’s laughable for the university’s spokesman to say after the fact that "Public Safety will be contacted" didn’t really mean that Public Safety will be contacted. And of course, this kind of vagueness about the applicability of a policy is a First Amendment problem in and of itself. When the university leaves it up to students like Christopher to "decide if their event fits those definitions"—under the threat of punishment if they get it wrong—then rational students will conclude that the guessing game just isn’t worth it, and will decide to keep their mouths shut instead. That uncertainty creates a chilling effect for campus speech—a result forbidden by the First Amendment. 

Finally, here’s the most depressing part:

"The university believes," Hand said, "that our policies and procedures are adequate to allow for free speech while maintaining the academic mission of the institution."

Talk about a revealing comment: According to their paid spokesman, the University of Cincinnati’s policies are "adequate to allow for free speech." Adequate. Remember that UC is a public university, legally and morally bound by the First Amendment, and that spokesman is paid with taxpayer dollars. Remember that the Supreme Court of the United States has made crystal clear, in rulings dating back more than a half-century, that the First Amendment not only applies in full on public college campuses, but that free speech on campus is crucially important for our nation. Remember that institutions like UC are presumptively engaged in the search for truth and are supposed to place the highest value on the free exchange of ideas. 

Now read the spokesman’s comment again: UC believes that its free speech zone is "adequate to allow for free speech while maintaining the academic mission of the institution." FIRE strongly disagrees: Quarantining the expressive activity of students like Christopher to just 0.1% of campus is entirely inadequate. And, even more importantly: Any public university that believes that robust free speech is somehow in tension with "maintaining the academic mission of the institution" is just flat out confused about what a modern liberal education involves and requires. UC should be ashamed. 

Schools: University of Cincinnati Cases: University of Cincinnati: Speech Code Litigation