WSSU assigns area for protests

By December 23, 2007

Any groups who want to hold unscheduled demonstrations and protests at Winston-Salem State University will now be able to gather on only one area of campus.

The adoption of a “free-speech zone’’ at WSSU – an idea that has brought controversy elsewhere, and was rescinded last year at UNC Greensboro – was approved by WSSU’s trustees earlier this month.

The area designated for free speech is the breezeway in front of the Thompson Center. The center is a main building on campus that houses many student-affairs offices, such as financial aid and admissions, as well as the campus bookstore and student cafeteria.

Groups will be able to assemble in areas typically used for public events, such as Williams Auditorium, if they schedule them with the university. The university needs notice of at least three business days.

WSSU’s policy promises not to restrict the content of any protest, demonstration, speech or program.

“I believe it is a fair policy,” said Gayle Barge, a university spokeswoman.

Barge said that the university has had guidelines about public assemblies and gatherings.

“All the university did was formalize it into a written policy,” she said. “This way, it is equitable on campus.”

Free-speech zones aren’t uncommon on college campuses. They’re likely an outgrowth of the Vietnam War-era protests of the 1960s and 1970s, said Lucien “Skip” Capone, UNC Greensboro’s university counsel. He has written about free-speech zones for the National Association of College and University Attorneys.

In recent years, free-speech zones have been challenged by civil-rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE successfully challenged free-speech zones at West Virginia University and Texas Tech University.

The groups say that the zones violate the First Amendment.

UNCG had two free-speech zones – one near the student center and one in front of the Foust Building – but university administrators did away with them in March 2006.

The new policy still has guidelines for public assemblies but no longer restricts unscheduled gatherings to those two spots on campus. And people who are not students or affiliated with the university must have a written invitation from a university group to conduct an outdoor gathering on campus.

In 2005, a group of students unfurled a banner that read “UNCG Hates Free Speech” in front of the library and held a quiet demonstration. The students were brought up on honor-court charges because they were protesting outside the free-speech zones. The charges were later dropped.

UNCG was re-considering the zones before the demonstration, Capone said this week.

In 2005, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that free-speech zones are allowed under certain circumstances. North Carolina is in the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Though it’s not a perfect analogy, in other areas of the country, courts have tended to view college campuses as small cities, “where the citizens are students, faculty and staff,” Capone said. The courts say that students should be allowed to gather in common areas on campus, much as citizens are allowed to assemble in city parks.

“To try to limit them to a small general area is unwarranted,” Capone said. “The university is not open to just anyone who wants to come. But if you are a student at the university … a student shouldn’t be deprived of expressing an opinion. When I read those cases, I thought our so-called speech zone needed to be broadened.”

“What they were saying is that you can’t restrict students as much as nonstudents,” he said.

The UNC system leaves free-speech regulation up to each public university in the state, said David Harrison, the system’s associate vice president for legal affairs. Generally, colleges may restrict the time and manner of free speech but not its content, he said.

The Rev. John Mendez of Emmanuel Baptist Church, a civil-rights veteran and one of many from Winston-Salem who traveled by bus in September to the Jena, La., protests, said this week that WSSU’s policy was unnecessary.

Several WSSU students joined the trip to Jena. Mendez was happy to see those students get involved.

“In general, that’s what college is all about, thinking out of the box,’’ he said. “It’s a time to question. It’s a time to criticize.”

“This sort of bothers me,” he said about the speech zone. “If anyone ought to stand for freedom of speech, it is African-American schools. I think it deserves to be challenged.”

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Schools: Winston Salem State University