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Speech Code of the Month: Northeastern University

The way Americans consume news has shifted dramatically over the past few years.

According to Pew Research Center Fact Tank analysis from 2017, 94 percent of 18-29 year-olds get news on mobile devices, while in 2013 that number was just 75 percent. Another Pew Research Center report found that more than half of smartphone users even get news alerts as push notifications on their devices. More than ever, young adults read breaking stories right as they’re unfolding.

So what happens when students want to respond to breaking news right away through protests or demonstrations on their campuses? Many colleges have policies that say they have to wait.

How long? It depends on the university. Westfield State University’s waiting period is 48 hours. At the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, it’s three days. And at Northeastern University, students are forced to fill out a permit application a full seven days in advance, which earns Northeastern its designation as FIRE’s November 2018 Speech Code of the Month.

Though a private institution, Northeastern clearly promises its students free speech, stating in its student handbook that “students enjoy the same basic privileges … as all citizens” and that “all members of an academic community, individually and collectively, have a right to express their views publicly on any issue.”

However, Northeastern’s “Demonstrations” policy, which appears in the school’s Student Organization Resource Guide, instructs students to “[f]ill out the Demonstration Permit Application form at least 7 days before your organization intends to demonstrate on campus property.”

Under First Amendment standards, colleges may maintain reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions, or viewpoint-neutral rules on where and when students can protest or demonstrate so that regular college activities and functions aren’t disrupted. But forcing students to wait a prolonged period of time before conducting any and all expressive activities isn’t reasonable.

As FIRE often explains, after that much time, it’s likely that the urgency of that particular news story has passed. The bill you supported was already defeated, the natural disaster relief effort needed your help the most last week, or the group that you wanted to counter-protest is long gone from the quad.

Back in 2013, FIRE’s Will Creeley commented on this same policy in the Boston Globe, saying, “Seven days’ notice is the difference between having one’s message heard and being last week’s news.” Given that the number of young adults receiving news immediately through their phones has increased by about 20 percent since 2013, Will’s words ring true now more than ever.

Northeastern must revise this policy to allow for spontaneous demonstrations on publicly available outdoor areas of the campus. That way, students can respond to recent and still-unfolding events in a timely fashion. Without this revision, promising students the right to “express their views publicly on any issue” is meaningless.  

If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network or Faculty Network to connect with a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Ask Northeastern to revise this policy

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