After Rove Dustup, UT Issues Free Speech Rules

September 8, 2015

By Vanessa McCray at The Blade

A new semester arrived with a fresh policy that addresses University of Toledo students’ free speech rights.

An “expression on campus” policy now guides campus protests and assemblies.

It codifies UT’s commitment “to promote the free exchange of ideas and the safe and efficient operation of the university,” according to the document, which emphasizes the fostering of free speech and right to assemble but prohibits activities that disrupt teaching, business operations, or providing client services.

The policy was approved in June by then-interim UT president Nagi Naganathan after complaints about how university police handled a protest of Republican strategist Karl Rove’s September, 2014, speech at the main campus’ Doermann Theatre.

Eman Abu Alhana, a pharmacy student, was among protesters last year who held signs condemning the speaker outside the event. She said some students tried to enter the room, but they were stopped by police.

“It was pretty obvious that it was because we had signs,” she said.

She said protesters asked officers repeatedly to produce a policy that backed up their refusal to admit them.

The new policy doesn’t prohibit students from protesting but is still vague, she said.

“[It’s] a step in the right direction, but I think [it] definitely needs to be addressed more clearly,” she said.

UT spokesman Jon Strunk did not respond to questions about whether the policy was created in response to the lecture incident.

He said only that input from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were considered in the policy’s drafting.

“The free exchange of ideas has always been essential to the academic experience at the University of Toledo.

The new expression on campus policy provides additional clarity regarding that long-standing commitment to the First Amendment rights for all on our campuses,” Mr. Strunk said in a written statement.

FIRE officials said UT’s work on the policy began after the nonpartisan Philadelphia organization notified the university of its concerns about the treatment of Mr. Rove’s protesters.

FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program director, Peter Bonilla, said his organization was contacted by the anti-discrimination committee.

Mr. Bonilla said university officials were cordial and work began on a policy.

“It’s something obviously we are quite pleased with. Obviously, we will have to see how the university might handle the next free-speech controversy, but it certainly doesn’t hurt having this kind of statement making sure that it’s clear that the university values its students’ First Amendment rights,” Mr. Bonilla said.

It’s unclear if the new policy would permit sign-carrying protesters from entering a university-sponsored event such as Mr. Rove’s speech, part of an honors college lecture series.

When asked, Mr. Strunk quoted a section of the policy that states that activities “may be subject to reasonable regulation with regard to the time, place and manner” and that the university “reserves the right to address such situations as circumstances warrant.”

Schools: University of Toledo Cases: University of Toledo: Police Enforce Unwritten Policy to Censor Political Protesters