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Western Illinois University’s ‘zombie’ free speech zone resurrected to shut down satirical ‘pot’ brownies event

Western Illinois University's free speech zone was declared dead 16 years ago — but it still lives on in university speech codes. (IlliniGradResearch via Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0/Modified from original.)

MACOMB, Ill., Sept. 5, 2019 — More than 16 years after Western Illinois University announced it was “immediately” eliminating its free speech zone, students are still feeling the bite of a zombie policy — one the university declared dead long ago but still lives on in university speech codes

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is calling on WIU to get its policies in order, ensure that its campus police know they can't enforce a long-‘dead’ policy, and put a stake through the heart of this speech code once and for all. 

“WIU was ahead of the pack in 2003 when they said they’d eliminate their unconstitutional free speech zone,” said Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Now it’s time they put their laudable words into action — by finally removing the restrictions that still stifle student expression today.”


Earlier this year, student Dylan Crowl and other members of the student group Young Americans for Liberty gathered in an open area of campus to encourage students to join the group. They also held out a sign promoting “Free ‘Pot’ Brownies” — a literal pot full of brownies (sans marijuana, as the use of quotation marks made obvious). The students took the opportunity to discuss their views on the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, which the Illinois legislature was debating at the time. Illinois subsequently legalized recreational use of marijuana. 

Within minutes, the students were stopped by two members of the WIU Police, who told Crowl that the officers were “going to give [him] an education” on the repercussions of bringing marijuana to campus. At least one of the officers noted his personal disagreement with the policy positions advocated by the students and asked them to remove the word “pot” from the sign. Crowl refused. 

The officers further explained that they “came out here because people thought you were handing out actual THC brownies and, anyways, you’re outside of the free speech zone right behind the Union.”

For that reason, literal speech police shut down the event.

“I was four when this policy was supposedly eliminated, but the unconstitutional free speech zone somehow still lives on,” said Crowl, who has been trying to meet with administrators since February to address the lingering speech code. “It shouldn't take 16 years for a college to live up to its promises, and obligations, to protect free speech.”

As a public institution, WIU is bound by the First Amendment and its continued use of a “Free Speech Area” is unconstitutional. Further, police intervention over a “free ‘pot’ brownies” event violates students’ First Amendment right to engage in political expression. In responding to protected speech, police would unquestionably deter an ordinary student from engaging in future expressive activity. 

FIRE contacted WIU in June regarding the continued use of free speech zones. WIU responded that it would have the policy removed from their website "as soon as possible.” However, as students returned to class in August, the policies remained.

Students, who have been back to class for more than two weeks, can still be punished by the policy that to this day remains published online and referenced as recently as this year. FIRE today is calling on WIU Acting-President Martin Abraham to immediately remove the inconsistent policies that not only imperil students’ First Amendment rights, but exposes the institution to liability.

“There is no better place for free and open expression of ideas than a public university. Our entire university represents the ideal of freedom of expression,” then-WIU President Al Goldfarb said in a 2003 press release. “I do not believe that we would ever want to restrict free speech to a specific area on the campus.”

WIU must immediately live up to this vision that has been denied to WIU students for more than half a generation. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.


Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

Martin Abraham, Acting President, WIU: 309-298-1824;


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