by Matt Camara
South Coast Today
DARTMOUTH — UMass Dartmouth students had better keep quiet.
A university policy restricting public assemblies to an official “public forum space” creates a “chilling effect” on student willingness to protest or engage in political demonstrations, students and faculty told The Standard-Times.
“It says in this spot and this spot only can you protest,” said philosophy professor Phil Cox, who describes the policy as unconstitutional. “It’s a very unfortunate compromise of students’ rights.”
The public forum area, commonly called the “free speech zone” by students and faculty, encompasses a patch of grass 75 feet southeast of the campanile at the center of campus and bordered on each side by walkways.
Assemblies in the space are banned after midnight until 6 a.m. and megaphones or other noise-making devices can only be used with permission from university administrators, the policy, posted on the university’s website, says.
“My thought is that they put those (rules) in place to prevent students from demonstrating,” said Brian Pastori, a 2008 graduate of UMass Dartmouth who protested the policy when it was created.
UMass Dartmouth spokesman John Hoey countered that the university does allow protests outside the zone with prior permission from administrators and defended the policy as necessary to ensure demonstrations do not interrupt university functions or services.
The UMass Board of Trustees created the system-wide policy in 2005 after protests erupted at UMass Amherst and saw students storm through an administrative building shouting and banging on windows, The Boston Globe reported at the time.
But the policy is far too restrictive and relegates protesters to a less-trafficked part of the campus, Cox said.
“Like any other place, (UMass) can regulate time, place and manner (of protests),” Cox said. “But this goes way beyond that. There’s no decibel level for the noise or anything. It’s just no megaphones without permission.”
Cox added that he often pushes his students to challenge the policy but that many are afraid.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit whose mission is to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” rated UMass Dartmouth’s speech policies as “yellow” on a green-yellow-red scale. The policy’s vagueness and openness to interpretation earned it the rating, according to FIRE’s website.
FIRE, through lawsuits, has overturned similar “free speech zone” policies at San Francisco State University, Temple University and others.
Asked if UMass Dartmouth fears a similar lawsuit, Hoey said it did not, pointing out that the policy is system-wide. A UMass system spokeswoman said she was unable to answer the same question Tuesday.
The policy also has never been enforced, although its existence is intimidating, Cox said. A protest at the Woodland Commons building — which is outside the zone — several years ago resulted in no disciplinary actions against students.
Students on campus Tuesday took issue with the policy, saying that, while they understood the administration’s stance on preventing university services from being disrupted, they did not see why the “free speech zone” could not be centrally located, such as outside the campus center.
“If you could do it anywhere, then people would picket … and interrupt traffic, but if all you’re doing is holding up signs, I don’t see why it can’t be anywhere,” junior Johnus Derby, who was aware of the policy, said.
Other students seemed less understanding of the administration.
“I think it’s wrong,” junior Kristina Creutz, of Plymouth, said. “This is a public place; it’s a public university. … If they can dictate where you protest, they can dictate who hears your message.”