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University of Hawaii at Manoa Students Want to Follow UH Hilo’s Lead on Free Speech

Last spring, the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UH Hilo) did the right thing, albeit under pressure from a First Amendment lawsuit (part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project) by two students who had been prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution on campus: The university administration implemented an interim speech policy without a restrictive “free speech zone.” Now, members of other schools within the UH system are taking note. Two guest writers at at student newspaper at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH Manoa), Ka Leo, have spoken out against similar unconstitutional policies at UH Manoa, including its own free speech zone and its rule against handing out literature on campus.

The authors begin by correctly pointing out that “[t]he idea of ‘free speech zones’ is troubling—students should not have to reserve their rights.” Yet that is precisely what UH Manoa has forced its students to do through administrative rules enabling the university president to “designate one or more appropriate public forum areas on campus where individuals may assemble and engage in public speech activities.” This policy was recently used to justify the painting over of part of a mural that the university itself had invited a campus student group to paint on construction walls at the school’s Campus Center. The offending part of the mural opposed the construction of a telescope at the peak of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawai’i, which is considered a sacred location in traditional Hawaiian culture. As a protest against a controversial project, this part of the mural was clearly constitutionally protected speech; yet UH Manoa blotted it out because it lay outside of the campus speech zone.

Those familiar with other free speech zone cases should not be surprised to learn that UH Manoa’s free speech zone is small and that its policies governing the use of the zone are highly restrictive. As the Ka Leo authors explain:

At UH Manoa, the public forum areas are the tents in Hemenway Hall and the Campus Center Courtyards. Students who wish to use these spaces for acts of speech and expression need to reserve them in advance, on a first-come, first-served basis.

Students can only use these spaces during operating hours of the Campus Center facilities. As such, students are allowed to express their opinion, but only in specific places, at specific times and when they inform the university in advance.

The Ka Leo authors go on to recount an incident this September in which another student group called Fix UH Manoa protested the firing the of the university’s former chancellor by writing the words “Fix UH Manoa” in chalk on the Campus Center stairs. University staff washed the message away the following night. In subsequent discussions between the student group and the Student Life and Development Office, the administrators again maintained that the message violated school policy because the group had not reserved the free speech zone first.

Additionally, the authors note that UH Manoa students handing out literature at the Campus Center have occasionally been pressured to stop. For instance, last September, several Student Life and Development employees asked students from Fix UH Manoa to stop handing out flyers about recent campus events and the group’s mission of promoting transparency and shared governance on campus. The rationale was that UH Manoa forbids “soliciting” on campus—a term that university rules fail to define, making this policy constitutionally suspect.

The writers at the Ka Leo approvingly cite the latest development in the UH Hilo lawsuit, and then go on to recommend the change they’d like to see on their own campus:

UH Manoa should follow the example of UH Hilo by allowing students to express their opinion anywhere on campus, without advance notice. It should also exclude the spreading of informational materials from the definition of “solicitation.” Doing so would not only ensure that UH Manoa’s policies protect students’ constitutional rights; it would also allow students to exercise the critical and free thinking that is a fundamental part of any university education.

These UH Manoa community members get it: Restricting campus speech by zoning it into cramped spaces and forcing students to get the administration’s permission before expressing themselves to their schoolmates is wrong and unconstitutional. We hope their administration will take note and change their policies to respect their students’ constitutional and moral right to speak freely.

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