Price Center at heart of speech debate

February 7, 2008

While the process of amending the campus advocacy policy is ongoing, University Centers officials have defined their own free-speech codelimiting the activity of community members in Price Center and splicing the rules for campus assembly.

After several weeks of meeting with student organizations, the three student representatives on the committee, charged with revising the campus outdoor space and distribution policy, submitted their preliminary proposal on Jan. 31. Unbeknownst to many, however, members of the University Centers Advisory Board had released their own policy limiting free speech in Price Center, a key free-speech area on campus, months earlier.

According to Carol-Irene Southworth, an A.S. Council representative to the committee, members spent many long hours talking with student groups, dissecting current legislation regarding First-Amendment rights on college campuses and evaluating the revision released last June to lay down the policy principles by which the final version must abide.

The current document was intentionally written broadly, Southworth said, to protect the campus community’s freedoms as much as possible before fleshing out all the details.

"We wanted to start where people have all their rights all the time," Southworth said. "If there do need to be specifications made, we need to be careful that it doesn’t get restrictive."

While the old policy was accused of being unconstitutional for hampering student speech and assembly, restricting the political activity of faculty and staff and separating the campus into free-speech zones, the current document promises not to "infringe the rights of any member of the university community or community at-large."

However, the rights of community members in Price Center could come into question under a new Price Center Plaza Limited Public Forum Policy the University Centers Advisory Board approved Nov. 7.

While Price Center has traditionally been managed as a programming and dining area, rather than standard outdoor space, the existing University Centers policy was vague, according to UCAB Chair Matthew Bright. The committee, comprised mostly of students, decided to update the policy, having University Centers administrators write it based on UCAB recommendations.

There was much debate within UCAB about allowing people unaffiliated with the university to assemble in Price Center, Bright said, but the board ultimately agreed that only UCSD students, faculty and staff with valid identification are allowed to engage in public speaking activities in the plaza.

The reason driving this restriction is safety, according to UCAB Vice Chair Lana Blank, who said that the policy is intended to protect students from being bulldozed by outside groups.

"We felt like a lot of groups who have absolutely no affiliation with the university have no obligation to follow the rules we set up," Blank said in an e-mail. "We feel like the Price Center is for UCSD, not just anyone."

UCAB member Arian Mashhood recalled the activity of nonaffiliated religious groups who would often preach in Price Center last year, setting off complaints from diners and facing consequences due to alleged free-speech violations.

"I don’t want to be screamed at while I’m eating lunch and be told I’m going to hell," Mashhood said.

While the campus community may have precedence over outsiders, the revision committee wants to eliminate the distinction between affiliates and nonaffiliates in order to keep the university open to the public, Graduate Student Association committee representative Benjamin Balthaser said.

Balthaser added that the new limited public forum policy may result in confusion amid the revamping of the general outdoor-space policy.

"Our intent is that there will be one policy covering everything to avoid confusion and to avoid backdoor ways to prohibit free speech," Balthaser said. "Most people in the university are under the impression that there is one policy, not deeper policies that the university is implicitly or explicitly keeping quiet."

While Price Center currently remains separate from the outdoor space policy, the committee is interested in including it in the new revision, Southworth said.

Other changes to the policy include a non-mandatory reservation system, in which a reservation is an optional method for student organizations to secure a space. There is also a stipulation requiring student representation for any future revisions of the policy and a clause limiting University Centers’ authority over Library Walk.

The student representatives are awaiting feedback from student organizations, the A.S. Council, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union. The committee plans to reunite Feb. 14 to voice opinions about the new proposal.

The student leadership in this process marks a unique opportunity for UCSD, according to Southworth, which allows the university to be an example for other campuses.

"Eventually we do want to have a model free-speech policy," Southworth said. "We want to have something that’s groundbreaking, a really solid way to write a free-speech policy for a university."

Schools: University of California, San Diego