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Speech Code of the Month: University of Cincinnati

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for December 2007: the University of Cincinnati.

The University of Cincinnati maintains a “Free Speech Area” policy (see page 10 of manual) limiting free speech to one area of campus and requiring that activities even in that area be formally scheduled through the Campus Scheduling Office. These free speech zone policies are typically very unpopular with students, and FIRE has successfully challenged a number of them, including at West Virginia University, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Texas Tech University, Citrus College, the University of Nevada-Reno, and Colorado State University.

So if these policies are so common, what makes the University of Cincinnati’s stand out enough to merit the Speech Code of the Month shame? It is the fact that the university backs up its free speech zone policy with the threat of criminal punishment:

The northwest section (see diagram) of McMicken Commons immediately east of McMicken Hall on the West Campus is designated as the main free speech area. Individuals or groups wanting to use these areas must schedule the activity in the Campus Scheduling Office. Anyone violating this policy may be charged with trespassing. (Emphasis added).

Really? The university plans to criminally prosecute students who choose to exercise their free speech rights on other open areas of the university’s campus, or who fail to register their activities in advance with the Campus Scheduling Office? If this is true, it is not only a massive violation of students’ First Amendment rights, but also a colossal waste of the judicial system’s time. If it is not true, but is merely a threat made to give the free speech zone policy some “teeth,” then it has a powerful and impermissible chilling effect on student speech on campus. A quick look at a map of the university’s West Campus shows that the “northwest section of McMicken Commons” is a very small area of campus, and that there are numerous other greens, commons, lawn areas, and sidewalks where students should be able to exercise their free speech rights. It is truly shameful this public university—legally bound to uphold its students' First Amendment rights—not only maintains this repressive Free Speech Area policy but threatens students with criminal prosecution merely for exercising their constitutionally protected rights outside of the paltry area it has designated for free speech.

For these reasons, the University of Cincinnati is our December 2007 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college or university 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.

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