At the University of North Carolina–Greensboro (UNCG), restricting student assembly is apparently something of an administrative tradition.
Torch readers may remember the travails of UNCG students Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott, two members of the UNCG College Libertarians who organized a 40-person rally for free speech on UNCG’s campus in November 2005. After refusing to move their protest to UNCG’s “free speech zone” when requested to do so by an administrator, Jaynes and Sinnott were charged with “violations of Respect” by the school. At the time, UNCG policy designated two small areas of campus as “free speech and assembly areas,” with 48 hours’ notice required for demonstrations even in those areas. Expressive activity outside of these meager zones required notification 48 hours prior to the demonstration and administrative approval. After a protracted battle and FIRE’s intervention, UNCG finally dropped the charges against Jaynes and Sinnott and promised to reform its assembly policies.
Nearly two years and one policy revision later, however, it seems that little has in fact changed at UNCG when it comes to restrictive policies on assembly.
>Local newspaper Yes! Weekly reported earlier this month that UNCG sophomore Laura Steigerwald was arrested this past March for “failing to disperse when commanded” while protesting a “Morals Week” event held by the UNCG College Republicans. According to Yes! Weekly’s report, Steigerwald was dancing on the outside of a circle of protesters when university police officers asked to speak to her. Angry at being singled out, Steigerwald asked the police if they planned on arresting her; if not, she said, she would continue dancing. A week later, Steigerwald was arrested by university police in her dorm room.
Steigerwald blames her arrest on confusion regarding the school’s assembly policy, which requires that “[p]rior to any outdoor assembly of an affiliated person or group, notification of the event must be provided to University Police… at least 12 hours before the event so that the Police may institute any necessary safety measures for both the speaker and those who attend.” “Unaffiliated groups” must provide 48 hours notice and must be “invited in writing by affiliated student organizations or University units.”
Thus Steigerwald, as a member of an “unaffiliated” campus anti-war group, required permission from both the College Republicans and the university police in order to stage a demonstration on campus. Having obtained neither, Steigerwald was additionally subject to a university administrative charge of failure to “follow proper university protocol according to university assembly policy,” resulting in her being placed on “probation through the spring of 2008, required to perform 25 hours of community service, required to attend a ‘making good choices’ workshop and required to write a five-page paper reflecting on what she has learned from her experience.”
Charges like those faced by Steigerwald are symptoms of UNCG’s confusing assembly policy, according to Sinnott:
“Nobody’s allowed on campus and they can arrest anybody at any time because they can’t define what an assembly is,” he said. “Which technically means that if you want to play Frisbee with your friends, you’ve got to get permission from the police. It was never written to be enforced universally; it was written to be enforced on very specific occasions for the basic maintenance of authority.”
“I think [UNCG] want[s] complete control of what happens,” Steigerwald said. “They always say, ‘This has nothing to do with what you’re saying, you just have to go about it the right way.’ There are so many hoops. They need IDs. Why do we need a teacher-advisor [to be an affiliated group]? How do groups get started if we’re not allowed to meet anywhere until we’re affiliated?”
While the merits of Steigerwald’s case are perhaps debatable, one thing seems certain: UNCG’s reformed assembly policy is still a source of confusion and dissatisfaction on campus. UNCG administrators have a legal obligation to ensure that the First Amendment rights of its students to assemble peacefully are protected—and that requires a clear, defined assembly policy.