At Ohio University, Student Group Takes Shot at Speech Zones

January 19, 2007

Students at Ohio University (OU) are organizing protests against the school’s designated “free speech zones,” according to an article published in yesterday’s Athens News.

According to the students, OU officials attempted to disband an anti-war rally held by other student groups on November 3. Over winter break, some students received letters informing them that they had violated the school’s “free speech zone” policy for “holding an unauthorized demonstration outside of the university’s approved “free-speech zones.’”

In response, aggrieved students formed an Ohio University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Sophomore Will Klatt, one of the group’s cofounders, told The Athens News that the group is planning a demonstration against the “free speech zone” policy. The rally, to be held on February 2, will take place in the same location as the November 3 rally.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ohio University is ranked a “red light” school on FIRE’s Spotlight, meaning that it enforces policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech on campus.

It is important to note that the OU chapter of SDS is not the only one currently engaged in a fight against administrators at a public university over the enforcement of “free speech zones.” FIRE is actively supporting the University of Central Florida (UCF)’s SDS chapter in a similar battle, after UCF administrators used their “free assembly areas” policy to prevent students from holding anti-war rallies on campus.

Courts have consistently held that public universities may enforce reasonable time, place and manner regulations when regulating First Amendment activity on campus, as long as they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest and alternative channels of communication are still available. Consistent with this standard, FIRE strongly believes that a university best serves its community by ensuring that protected speech is allowed as much “breathing room” as possible. Indeed, as FIRE said in a letter to UCF President John C. Hitt, federal law “does not support the transformation of public institutions of higher education into places where constitutional protections are the exception rather than the rule.” Of course, this statement applies with equal and undiminished force at public universities around the country, from Ohio to Florida, Alaska to Maine.

Schools:  Ohio University