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Speech Code of the Month: University of Massachusetts Amherst

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for September 2010: University of Massachusetts Amherst.

UMass Amherst has a policy on rallies that flagrantly burdens student speech on the basis of viewpoint, with total disregard for the public university's obligation to uphold the First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. The policy defines rallies as "events where people freely assemble around a common cause(s) and/or point(s) of advocacy." This broad definition would appear to encompass any event, no matter the size, in which two or more people join together to publicly express an opinion.

There are several problems with the general section of the "Rallies" policy. First, rallies must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance, which limits students' ability to respond quickly to unfolding events on campus or nationwide. Sometimes the immediacy of a message is part of its efficacy, and requiring prior registration deprives students of the ability to convey their message with as much urgency as they may feel.

Second, the policy provides that "[d]uring class hours, rallies can only be held on the Student Union steps (either front entrance or south steps)." While the university may craft narrow time, place, and manner regulations to prevent disruption of the educational environment, this is not such a regulation. A look at a campus map reveals that the Student Union steps are only a tiny portion of UMass' campus, and there appear to be numerous other areas where students might demonstrate without interfering with classes in session. Limiting student ralliesparticularly when the term "rallies" is defined so expansivelyto just one tiny area of campus, even during class hours, is unreasonable, overly restrictive, and a severe infringement on students' First Amendment rights.

These two problems, however, pale in comparison with the section of the policy entitled "Controversial Rallies." That section provides that "[s]pace for controversial rallies must be requested 5 working days prior to the scheduled date" and that "[s]pace may only be reserved from 12 noon to 1 pm." The policy also requires that when holding a controversial rally, "The sponsoring RSO [Registered Student Organization] must designate at least 6 members to act as a security team." In other words, student groups wishing to publicly express a controversial opinion on campus must give at least five days notice, may only do it on one small area of campus for one hour a day, and must be willing to put themselves in harm's way by acting as their own security in order to do so. And of course, the policy leaves the term "controversial" completely undefined, giving the UMass administration unfettered discretion to label any potentially unpopular expression with this designation.

This utter disaster of a policy completely violates UMass students' First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly--rights which UMass, as a public university, is legally bound to uphold. For this reason, UMass Amherst is our September 2010 Speech Code of the Month. We hope that UMass will spare itself the continued embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights by immediately eliminating this shameful policy.

If you believe that your college's or university's policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail 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 these issues, consider joining FIRE's Campus Freedom Network, a loose affiliation of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. And if you would like to help fight abuses at universities nationwide, add FIRE's Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog, website, or Facebook profile and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

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