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Louisiana State University suspends free speech and freedom of assembly “until further notice”

LSU's Tiger Stadium.

LSU's Tiger Stadium. (Roberto Michel/Shutterstock)

News has been trickling out of Louisiana State University, where a student’s tragic death is being used by the administration to justify clamping down on the fundamental rights of its students, including freedom of speech and assembly. Some of those unconstitutional restrictions have been relaxed, while most remain in place indefinitely.

Following the death of freshman Maxwell Gruver, LSU declared the week of Sept. 18-25 a “Week of Reflection.” In a widely-circulated document, the university lays out what conduct was prohibited during a Week of Reflection. It’s a staggering document prohibiting Greek students from engaging in a huge range of activities from tailgating, to designated driving programs (one struggles to see how that could possibly go wrong), to blood drives, on or off-campus programs and socials, and even study groups.

There are a huge number of instances in which such a policy clearly infringes upon freedom of assembly. Considering that Rosh Hashanah — when Jews regularly come together to celebrate — occurred during the Week of Reflection, and LSU is home to the Jewish fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu, some applications of this policy could arguably even violate students’ freedom of religion.

If this strikes you as an uncharitable interpretation of these rules, consider this: When asked how the university could possibly distinguish between an “organized tailgate,” for example, and a gathering of friends before a football game, LSU Director of Media Relations Ernie Ballard gave this troubling answer: “Students are being told that groups of 10 or more from a Greek organization would be an organized tailgate, which is a suspended activity.” The answer to how LSU would distinguish gatherings of friends from official events, then, seems to be that it won’t.

In addition, the ban on “group seating” while wearing chapter insignia, stickers, and buttons is an impermissible restriction on expression — remember, clothing can be symbolic speech.

On September 21, the university announced a new set of restrictive measures. The new guidelines announced an end to the specific prohibitions on philanthropic activities immediately and on tailgating starting September 30.

These regulations remain in place “until further notice,” and there is no indication as to when they will relent. As the document ominously puts it, “[i]t is important to understand that there will be no return to ‘normal’. There will be a movement to a new understanding of how the Greek system will operate.”

Regarding these restrictions, LSU alumnus and First Amendment lawyer Scott Sternberg told FIRE:

Ever since the tragic passing of Maxwell Gruver, LSU has been focused not only on curbing binge drinking and hazing – as it should – but also on the rights of adults to speak and assemble on issues that they care about. If LSU were interested in educating these young adults on making better choices, I would think that part of that education is instilling in them what rights they have and how to use those rights responsibly amidst this tragic situation.

FIRE reached out to LSU Media Relations for comment on how these regulations were made, what department or administrator has enforcement discretion, and when the strict prohibitions will end. After 24 hours, they have not offered any comment beyond verifying the authenticity of the documents we’ve obtained.

While we are not surprised that this policy emerged from a “red light” institution, especially one against which FIRE has sponsored a Stand Up for Speech lawsuit, these documents represent a disturbing display of disdain for constitutional rights at a public university.

It’s understandable that LSU would want to take steps to avoid another tragic loss of a student. But unconstitutional regulations are simply not a legitimate part of a public institution’s toolbox, and they must end immediately.

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