Grand Valley State University abolishes free speech zones in lawsuit settlement

March 6, 2017

Last week, Michigan’s Grand Valley State University confirmed the settlement of a First Amendment lawsuit filed on behalf of students and their student organization challenging allegedly unconstitutional restrictions on their campus free speech rights, including a policy cabining demonstrations to two small free speech zones.

Attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom filed the suit last December on behalf of GVSU’s student chapter of Turning Point USA and two of its student members based on an Oct. 17, 2016, incident on campus. According to their complaint, the TPUSA members reserved space in one of two small areas designated for expressive activity on campus — which we at FIRE like to call “free speech zones.” They brought with them an oversized beach ball, which they dubbed a “free speech ball,” and invited other students to write messages on it and to discuss their First Amendment rights. The group members soon began rolling the ball around campus sidewalks outside the designated area and were later stopped by GVSU administrators and campus security. They were told to return to the free speech zone if they wanted to continue talking to students and that, if they refused, they would be arrested for trespassing.

The suit challenged GVSU’s policy restricting student speech and expressive activity to the two free speech zones, as well as the requirement that students always receive permission to engage in expressive activity — even in the free speech zone — ahead of time, pointing out this leaves no space for any spontaneous speech on campus.

Under the settlement, GVSU adopted a revised policy that generally allows students to demonstrate, distribute literature, and engage in other expressive activities throughout campus, without seeking permission, unless they are materially disrupting the educational environment.

FIRE is pleased to see another First Amendment lawsuit topple more campus free speech zones and other speech codes, such as GVSU’s permit requirement, that unfairly restrict student speech rights. The student plaintiffs here, like those from FIRE’s own Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, should be commended for pushing for reform by making clear to their colleges and universities the legal consequences of maintaining unconstitutional policies. We encourage all students to learn about your school’s speech codes and how you can help make positive change for speech rights on campus.

Schools:  Grand Valley State University