University Of Cincinnati Free Speech Zones Ruled Unconstitutional By Federal Judge

By June 14, 2012

A federal court told the University of Cincinnati it must rewrite policies restricting protests on campus.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Black ruled Tuesday that UC was violating students’ free speech rights by restricting protests to a "free speech zone" and by requiring prior notification and permission.

"It is simply unfathomable that a UC student needs to give the university advance notice of an intent to gather signatures for a ballot initiative," Black wrote in a preliminary injunction. "There is no danger to public order arising out of students walking around campus with clipboards seeking signatures."

The ruling was issued in a case brought by the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law helped on behalf of the lawsuit Young Americans for Liberty filed. The YAL sought permission to gather signatures across campus in support of a state "right to work" ballot initiative, but was denied by UC.

Christopher Morbitzer, the YAL campus president, was told campus security would be alerted if his group was seen collecting signatures on campus outside the UC’s "free speech zone."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit free speech watchdog group, has been criticizing UC’s policy for some time:

UC has been on notice that its policy is unconstitutional for more than four years. FIRE named UC’s policy its "Speech Code of the Month" in December 2007, calling it "truly shameful" that a public university "threatens students with criminal prosecution merely for exercising their constitutionally protected rights outside of the paltry area it has designated for free speech." FIRE also wrote to UC in December 2008, explaining that UC’s free speech zone represented a serious threat to liberty on campus.

FIRE’s efforts have defeated similar free speech zones on campuses across the nation, including the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, West Virginia University, the University of Nevada at Reno, Citrus College in California, Valdosta State University in Georgia and Texas Tech University.

"There’s been some haziness about students’ rights to engage in free speech on campus," Maurice Thompson, a lawyer with the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "We expect this to have reverberations beyond this case."

The University said its policy is meant to prevent classes from being disrupted, but the Enquirer reported Black’s conclusion that the policy was too vague.

"The university has simply offered no explanation of its compelling interest in restricting all demonstrations, rallies and protests from all but one designated public forum on campus," Black said.

The Student Press Law Center, another free speech advocacy group, cheered the decision.

"This was a very resounding validation of First Amendment rights for students to express their opinions on the grounds of a college campus," Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said. "It showed that you can’t ghettoize speech into a remote corner of campus and get away with it."

The AP reports a UC spokesperson said they are reviewing their policy and will decide how to move forward.

The University of Cincinnati maintains a shockingly restrictive free speech zone comprising just 0.1% of the school’s 137-acre campus. The policy, which was named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month back in December of 2007, quarantines "demonstrations, pickets, and rallies" to a tiny portion of campus, requires students to request permission to use the zone a full ten working days in advance, and threatens students with criminal prosecution for violations, warning that "[a]nyone violatings policy may be charged with trespassing.Because this public university isn’t shy about enforcing its misguided and illiberal policy, it now faces a federal civil rights lawsuit. Last month, a political student group seeking to collect signatures from students across campus in support of a ballot initiative filed a First Amendment challenge against the free speech zone after being told by administrators that they were not even "permitted to walk around." The administration added, "if we are informed that you are, Public Safety will be contacted." Threatening to call the cops on civic-minded students who want to talk to their peers about politics sure seems indefensible, and now the University of Cincinnati has to answer for its policy in federal court.    


Schools: University of Cincinnati