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Student Spotlight: Beth Baumann, Championing Free Speech at Northern Arizona University

In September 2011, when Beth Baumann of Northern Arizona University (NAU) made plans to commemorate the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, she never expected to be shut down by her school. After all, who would stop students from handing out miniature American flags, pins, and bumper stickers? But when inclement weather forced her and two compatriots to move their commemoration from the courtyard outside of the student union into the building itself, they unknowingly exited the school’s free speech zone.

Unwilling to tolerate this exercise of free speech and assembly, several NAU administrators attempted to move the students back outside into the rain or down into an unpopulated hallway. When the students refused and stood up for their rights, the administrators called campus police. The students were charged with “failure to comply with the directions of university officials or agents” and “interfering with or disrupting university-sponsored activities.”

Fortunately, with the help of FIRE’s advocacy, the charges were eventually dropped. But the experience made a First Amendment champion out of Beth. A video she recorded of the incident went viral and sparked a campus-wide discussion on free speech. She held demonstrations with the student group NAU Conservatives to spread awareness about NAU’s free speech zones, and became a dedicated and valuable member of the FIRE Student Network. Her efforts even prompted the student government’s creation of a committee to address the student code’s limitations on constitutionally protected freedoms.

Three years later, Beth has earned her degree and graduated from NAU. The FIRE Student Network’s Student Spotlight would like to congratulate her on a meaningful and successful college experience and thank her for all the work she has done to fight for freedom of expression on campus. Unfortunately, NAU remains a “red light” institution in FIRE’s Spotlight database, with one policy which clearly and substantially restricts free speech and several others that may be used to restrict protected expression. Beth has laid the groundwork for upholding freedom of speech at NAU—now it’s up to current students and faculty to continue her efforts.

The FIRE Student Network asked Beth to share her experience promoting free speech at NAU:

FIRE: Were you surprised when the administration prevented you from distributing your 9/11 memorial materials?

I was surprised and really upset when multiple administrators wanted to keep my friends and I from handing out flags for 9/11. Because it was the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I felt as though the administration was being disrespectful to those men and women who lost their lives.

FIRE: What prompted you to contact FIRE after the incident? How did you hear about us?

Initially, my friend, Stephanee Freer, contacted FIRE after the incident. It was then that I became aware of FIRE and the mission of the organization.

FIRE: After the incident, what did you do on campus to raise awareness of student rights?

After the incident, the video we shot was uploaded to YouTube and it went viral. Students across our campus were sharing it with each other. Most felt as though we made NAU look bad. Because of the outcry from students and the national attention our case was receiving, NAU's president held a forum. At that time, I defended our actions, and expressed my concern over the limiting free speech zones and university officials’ lack of concern for free speech on campus. A handful of us from the NAU Conservatives held a protest in the designated free speech zones. We roped off the area with CAUTION tape and stood inside it, to give students a visual of where we can and can't have free speech. Our student government also decided to create a "committee" that would address the different student code of conduct guidelines and their limits on free speech.

FIRE: How can other students get involved in the fight for student rights on campus?

Students can get involved with the fight for student rights on campus by becoming informed and learning how to engage their peers. Doing something simple, like pointing out the irony behind having designated free speech zones, can make a difference in the fight for student rights.

FIRE: Now that you've graduated, what's in store for the future?

Now that I've graduated, I'm looking to pursue a career in political communications, preferably with a nonprofit or advocacy organization.

FIRE: Anything else you would like to share?

I want students to know that even though it's scary to challenge administration, sometimes it's absolutely necessary. It's a scary thing to do, especially when you're facing the possibility of getting kicked out of college. If you're passionate about the issue and what you believe in, it's worth fighting for.

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