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Speech Code of the Month: Northwestern State University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for August 2016: Northwestern State University in Louisiana.

Universities are allowed to adopt reasonable, content-neutral, and narrowly tailored “time, place, and manner” regulations governing expressive activities on campus, but Northwestern State’s new Policy on Public Speech, Assembly and Demonstrations is anything but reasonable. Because of this policy, FIRE recently downgraded Northwestern State to our poorest, red light speech code rating.

First, the policy requires students to “[a]pply at least 24–48 hours or more” before holding a demonstration or other public assembly. Next, the policy limits expressive activities to “one, 2-hour time period every 7 days, commencing on Monday.” Finally, expressive activities are limited to just three spots on campus: Student Union Plaza, Prather Coliseum East Parking Lot, and the “Green Space between CAPA and Varnado Hall.”

There are numerous problems with this policy, so let’s go through them one at a time.

First, while it is fine for a university to request advanced notice of demonstrations where possible, a public university like Northwestern State may not completely prevent its students from engaging in spontaneous expressive activities on campus. The Supreme Court has said that “[i]t is offensive—not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society—that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of NY, Inc. v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 165–66 (2002).

While many demonstrations are planned in advance, others are unplanned responses to unfolding events, and requiring advance notice can dramatically inhibit students’ ability to convey their message. For example, if students want to respond to a police shooting, there is a big difference between holding a rally or vigil on the night it happens and holding it two days later. Northwestern State must make some allowance for this type of spontaneous expression.

The policy also limits students’ expressive activities to just a single two-hour time slot per week. This blanket restriction is unreasonable. There may be times when a university legitimately needs to limit the amount of time that a particular group is demonstrating in a particular place. For example, the university may need the space for educational activities, or demonstrators could be preventing other, competing groups from engaging in expressive activity there. These are probably the types of situations that Northwestern State is trying to avoid with its policy, but the language casts far too wide of a net. As we have seen with recent campus protests across the country, there may be very legitimate reasons that a group would seek to protest or demonstrate over a period of days, and barring disruption or other interference with university activities, they should be permitted to do so.

Finally, the policy establishes just three areas on campus where students can engage in expressive activity. FIRE calls such restrictions “free speech zones,” and they have been roundly rejected by courts around the country. Universities’ desire to maintain order on campus is understandable, but there is no reason that students should not be able to engage in expressive activities in open, outdoor areas of campus so long as they follow reasonable rules designed to prevent disruption. A look at Northwestern State’s campus map reveals numerous such areas that should be open to student expression, subject to reasonable regulations.

Each of these restrictions is problematic in its own right, but the cumulative effect of requiring prior notice and limiting protests to just two hours per week, at one of just three locations on campus, is severely restrictive. For this reason, Northwestern State’s demonstration policy is our August 2016 Speech Code of the Month.

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 the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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