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By Vicki Smith at The Associated Press State & Local Wire
Led by an Abe Lincoln lookalike, dozens of students paraded around the West Virginia University campus Tuesday, protesting a decades-old policy that limits free speech to two outdoor areas the size of small classrooms.
They timed their demonstration to coincide with Lincoln’s birthday, Black History Month and WVU Gay Pride Week, arguing the zones are not only unconstitutional, but also inadequate for a school with more than 20,000 students.
“The First Amendment and other laws on the books cover free speech. There’s no need to keep us penned into zones,” said the Lincoln imitator, Nathan Moore, a 21-year-old senior from Huntington. “Free speech should be OK anywhere in public,” he said. “A policy that intrinsically limits free speech is just wrong.”
Students tied up purple streamers to delineate one of the zones, them ripped them down 20 minutes later and turned them into armbands, marching to the lawn below President David Hardesty’s office.
Hardesty, who had earlier invited several of the organizers to a private afternoon meeting, did not address the students as they chanted and gave TV interviews.
Sam Griga, a senior political science major from suburban Philadelphia, duct-taped his mouth shut during the demonstration and held a sign declaring, “They won’t let me speak my mind.”
The group marched to Woodburn Circle and the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, where the First Amendment hangs on a wall.
That, the students say, is the only policy WVU needs.
In a letter sent Monday, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also urged Hardesty to revoke the policy.
“This perversion of constitutional law should be anathema to any institution committed to intellectual rigor, robust debate, and a free and vibrant community,” wrote Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy.
“A university serious about the search for truth should be seeking at all times to expand open discourse, to foster intellectual inquiry, and to engage and challenge the way people think,” he said.
Hardesty has acknowledged the need to revise the free speech policy, but so far, neither he nor any other school official has said it will be rescinded.
Hardesty spokeswoman Carolyn Curry said university lawyers have been working with a Faculty Senate committee to update the policy, which was written before the Vietnam War.
“It’s not a question of what people can say, it never has been,” she said. “Under the First Amendment, you have a right. It’s the matter of where, and we’re trying to balance that right under the First Amendment.”
School spokeswoman Becky Lofstead, who watched part of the demonstration, said an ad hoc committee formed by the Faculty Senate expects to propose a policy that is “more in tune with the times” within six weeks. It may be posted for public input.
Matthew Poe, a 20-year-old junior from Fairmont, said students are frustrated by what they say is a recurring problem with freedom of expression on campus.
For several semesters, Poe protested alleged unfair labor practices when Disney officials have come to campus to recruit for spring internships. At one protest, six students and faculty members quietly handed out leaflets while three campus police officers watched.
The group didn’t chant, and one teacher even played a harp.
“We’ve quietly raised this issue in student forums and it seems to a large extent we’ve been stonewalled,” Poe said.
During his half-hour meeting with the students, Hardesty apologized for the slow pace of progress.
“We’re optimistic,” Poe said afterward, “but we’ve been waiting for a long time.”
Hardesty promised the free speech policy will be “liberalized,” but the students continued to press for its elimination.
The president also assured the students that campus police will not harass anyone who is protesting peacefully, regardless of whether the demonstration is outside a free speech zone.Download file "WVU Students Protest Free Speech Zones on Campus"