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Butler Removes Free Speech Zone From Demonstrations Policy, Sets Positive Example

As a new academic year gets underway, we at FIRE are optimistic about working with colleges and universities to revise their unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes. While the threat of a federal lawsuit may ultimately be necessary to get some institutions to respect students’ and faculty members’ free speech rights, FIRE is always available and willing to help university administrators who want to reform their policies. We’re thrilled to work with individual students and professors in this effort as well.

That’s why I’m pleased to note that Butler University in Indiana has kicked off the new academic year with a policy change that will benefit students wishing to speak freely on campus. While Butler is a private institution, it promises its students free speech in clear terms, and thus is bound to follow through on that commitment. For example, in its “Computer Use Master Policy,” the university declares:

Butler also cherishes the privacy of personal content and freedom of expression that are at the core of intellectual pursuit and are fundamental to expression of teaching and learning.

Contravening this and other statements in official policy materials, however, Butler formerly maintained a Student Handbook policy on “Campus Demonstrations and Free Speech” stating:

To provide a convenient and visible location for spontaneous student activism and civic engagement activities/programs on campus, Norris Plaza is designated as the “Speaker’s Corner” for individual students and student groups. Typical activities might include: Displaying a sign board which allows students to write their opinions, student speeches or handouts on a current issue, a memorial vigil, etc. These activities do not require registration when they do not involve persons outside the University, are not amplified, or cause a safety hazard.

This policy allowed free speech and expressive activity, including spontaneous expression, in only one area of campus and left students unclear whether they would have the right to engage in such speech elsewhere on campus (at least, without registering their activity ahead of time with the university).

Unfortunately, given how many universities cabin student speech to small, remote, and out-of-the-way parts of campus—often under absurd policies providing for free speech gazebos, patios, and the like—this was not really anything new to FIRE. In fact, as our free speech zone infographic attests, roughly one out of six surveyed colleges maintains a free speech zone policy restricting campus discourse, despite the fact that courts have struck down those policies when challenged.

At Butler, however, the university faced student opposition to its restrictive policy. Levi Gourdie, president of the Butler chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), contacted FIRE seeking for our help in improving Butler’s speech codes. In May of this year, we sent Levi and YAL a memorandum analyzing each of those policies, including the Campus Demonstrations and Free Speech policy, and recommending how they could be revised to meet the university’s stated commitments to freedom of expression. Armed with our memorandum, Levi and YAL, along with other interested students and faculty members, informed the administration of their desire to get rid of the solitary free speech zone.

Happily, their advocacy and efforts have borne fruit. The 2014–15 edition of Butler’s Student Handbook (PDF; see page 17) completely omits the offending paragraph from its policy on Campus Demonstrations and Free Speech. The policy broadly declares:

Butler University respects the rights of all members of the academic community to express their ideas freely and to demonstrate their concerns collectively by orderly means. Public dialog and debate within an environment that encourages diverse views are vital to the University’s mission. In exercising their free speech rights, University community members assume responsibility for the consequences of their actions and do not represent the University.

The right of expression at Butler University includes peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations.

This is an excellent result for the students and faculty at Butler, and those who advocated for it should be proud of themselves. As a result of their efforts, open discourse is better protected at Butler, which no longer confines free speech to a single area on campus.

We hope other institutions are paying attention and will follow Butler’s example in the new academic year. Like the University of Florida, which recently became the latest university to earn an overall “green light” rating from FIRE, other colleges and universities can protect student and faculty speech and live up to their promises and obligations by reforming their speech codes. We at FIRE will be waiting to help them make the necessary revisions if they choose to do so.

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