WVU Students are at Greater Liberty to Protest

May 12, 2002

By Mary Kershaw at USA Today

West Virginia University’s faculty senate is expected Monday to endorse revisions to the school’s policy on limiting student protests to designated “free speech zones.”

The old policy restricted student demonstrations to two outdoor zones the size of small classrooms. Students demonstrated against the policy last winter, saying that they had a right to protest anywhere on campus.

In February, 50 students gathered in front of the student union and marched through campus with an Abe Lincoln look-alike leading the way. “We needed to let the administration know that a lot of people felt the free speech zones were an issue,” says Matthew Poe, 20, a WVU Free Speech Consortium member.

In response, the administration revisited the policy and added five more zones. After more criticism and debate, the policy was revised further: Student protesters would not be required to pay for security, and groups of fewer than 30 students would be allowed to picket outside the zones if they are not noisy or too close to buildings where classes are in session.

The new policy states the university can put “reasonable restrictions on time, place and manner of speech” to protect students from speech they may not want to hear and to prevent disruption during classes.

If the faculty senate endorses it, the policy will go to WVU president David Hardesty for final approval.

“This is free speech at its best,” says WVU spokeswoman Becky Lofstead. “People have objected, and the university has listened.”

Zones and other restrictions on free speech have been common on many college campuses for decades. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Florida State University and Iowa State University faced similar controversies, leading to revised policies.

The original WVU policy, established in 1995, has been under fire for several years. It drew criticism in 1999 when a preacher offended several students during Gay Pride Week, and WVU officials said he violated university code by preaching outside the designated zones. During a 2000 Disney recruiting seminar, campus police told student protesters they could carry signs only in the two zones. In 2001, a student was asked to leave a Disney seminar for passing out fliers outside the zones.

“A couple of unfortunate incidents led to the review of our policy,” Lofstead says. “One student was asked to leave for passing out literature when Disney came to visit. That … shouldn’t have happened. The university does not condone asking students to move or to leave.”

Many students argue that the policy changes don’t go far enough. They would prefer a policy that is “behavior-based” and allows unfettered protest that is not disruptive to the campus.

And some insist there should be no policy at all. “Students are expected to obey state and federal laws wherever they are,” says graduate student Michael Bomford, a member of the Students for Economic Justice. “That includes not disturbing classes and blocking traffic. There are already laws in place that prevent that.”

Philosophy professor Daniel Shapiro, president of the West Virginia Association of Scholars, says it is “constitutionally dubious” to have zones on a college campus. “It limits protest to certain areas, and the intended audience can’t always be reached.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based civil liberties group, has been monitoring the zone issue. “There are dozens of campuses across the U.S. with free speech zones,” says Thor Halvorssen, executive director. “We plan to take each one down, one by one. By creating zones, the administration is saying that free speech does not exist in the areas of campus outside the zones.”

WVU officials disagree. “There are seven areas on campus set aside for demonstration and protest, but certainly the whole campus is open for anyone to express their views or hand out literature,” Lofstead says.

“The purpose of the zones is the safety and protection of those who want to protest and those who don’t want to be subjected to those views.”

Many are hoping there will be additional relaxing of the restrictions. “I hope the final outcome will be what we’ve been working for all along,” Poe says. “But as long as the university zones free speech, they will have a fight from us.”

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Schools: West Virginia University Cases: West Virginia University: Limit on Speech to Campus “Free Speech Zones”