June 2019 Speech Code of the Month: University of Maine

June 3, 2019

It’s bad enough that the University of Maine forces its students to provide notice three days before they can hold any expressive activities in the outdoor areas of the campus. But even worse, the school specifically requires students to contact the university’s chief of police in order to do so. This heavy-handed approach is likely to have a chilling effect on protected expression, making it our Speech Code of the Month for June.  

The University of Maine’s student handbook includes the following provision in its “Free Speech and Assembly Policy”:

Individuals and groups wishing to use outdoor areas and facilities shall notify the Chief of the University of Maine Police or their designee at least three days in advance of the nature, the time, and the place of the proposed activity.

So, if students want to get out on the campus and protest, they need to wait a full three days before doing so. But the ability to conduct spontaneous protests is critical to one of the main functions of universities — to serve as a marketplace of ideas.

Universities may put in place reasonable regulations on the time, place, and manner of public expression in order to limit disruptions to classes and other university functions. However, as FIRE has warned time and time again, a blanket requirement that students notify the university well in advance before engaging in any expressive activities is not reasonable.

Requiring advance notification is already enough to discourage expression, since students seeking to hold a protest about unfolding events may decide having to wait three days will defeat the demonstration’s purpose, as the urgency of the topic wanes. Making the point of contact the university’s chief of police heightens the possibility of this chilling effect even more.

No matter what the subject matter of the protest is, having to approach the chief of police about it is likely to feel pretty intimidating for students. (And probably even more so if the proposed demonstration touches upon topics like police brutality, racial profiling, stop and frisk, or unreasonable search and seizure.)

The ultimate result is that some students will be discouraged from conducting expressive activities — an unacceptable result at a public university like the University of Maine that is legally bound by the First Amendment. And given that the Board of Trustees for the University of Maine System has adopted the Chicago Statement — the policy statement FIRE sees as the gold standard for commitments to free expression — the university has all the more reason to revise this policy so that it better aligns with legal and institutional standards.

Specifically, the University of Maine should adopt a procedure where students only need to notify the administration about events that are inherently likely to disrupt campus activities, like events expected to attract a large crowd, ones involving an invited speaker, and those that use amplified sound, as well as marches, parades, or other events that require street closures or other coordination on the part of the university.

For a good example of such a policy, take a look at UNC Greensboro. Its policy says that, while groups and individuals may generally use the publicly available areas of the campus for expressive activities without notice, individuals planning events that are expected to attract over 150 attendees need to notify the university in advance. This way, the university narrowly regulates the sorts of events that are most likely to cause a disruption to normal campus activities, without discouraging students from conducting non-disruptive spontaneous events.

The University of Maine should follow suit and revise its Free Speech and Assembly Policy so that it no longer requires advance notice for all activities, and so that it provides a point of contact for event organizing that is more approachable for students, like a student affairs staff member.

If you believe that your college or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network or Faculty Network to connect with a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. If you’re concerned about a potential violation of your rights on campus, contact FIRE for more information.

Ask President Ferrini-Mundy to revise this policy


Schools:  University of Maine