Fliers, posters may create problems

January 14, 2009

When it comes to campus safety, fliers and signs posted on college campuses might pose an issue for some universities.

Northeastern Illinois University proposed a policy in November to require protesters to submit fliers, signs and/or posters to administrators two weeks in advance before bringing them on campus.

The reason behind the policy was to help the university address security concerns and be aware of what was going on in the campus community.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) thought otherwise, and due to their participation, the university withdrew the policy from consideration earlier this month.

FIRE is an organization that assists colleges and universities across the United States with issues such as individual rights, religion and freedom of speech.

To draw attention to NEIU’s proposal, FIRE authored two blog entries on their Web site highlighting the constitutional weakness presented by the policy.

Will Creeley, director of Legal and Public Advocacy for FIRE, said the organization commented on the proposed speech policy because had it been enacted, it would have violated freedom of speech rights.

"It would have drastically and unconstitutionally limited the rights of NEIU students and faculty to engage in expressive activities on campus," he said.

Creeley said while administrators on NEIU’s campus want to insure campus safety, they must do so within the limits of the law.

"They cannot do so in a way that so drastically curtails the First Amendment rights of students and faculty," he said.

For Eastern, a process to check literature from protesters is not foreseen.

Mark Hudson, director for housing and dining, said the university has not been forced to even take such precaution.

"I am not familiar with their (NEIU) background, but I know we haven’t been forced to take such measures as those," he said.

Hudson said if something inappropriate does show up on any bulletin boards, the individual or group would be contacted.

Creeley said the First Amendment does not protect all expression.

"If expression meets the exacting legal definitions of true harassment, threats, or intimidation, colleges may punish and regulate such speech," he said. "These are not protected by the First Amendment.

Creeley said universities can establish "reasonable time, place and manner" restrictions on public expression that is supported by other cases.

"However, there is nothing at all reasonable about transforming the vast majority of the university’s property into a censorship area," he said.

Creeley said federal case law regarding freedom of expression simply does not support the transformation of public institutions of higher education into places where constitutional protections are the exception rather than the rule.

Hudson said he does not know if there will be a time where fliers and signs will have to go through a pre-screen process in order to insure safety on campus.

"Never say never," he said. "These are uncertain times and people are suspected of doing anything."

Schools: Northeastern Illinois University