Questions Surround Proposed ‘Free Speech Zone’ at Northeastern Illinois University

December 19, 2008

Deanna Isaacs of the Chicago Reader reports troubling developments at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), a public university in Chicago. According to Isaacs, NEIU President Sharon K. Hahs has proposed instituting an unconstitutional free speech zone on the NEIU campus, with prior approval requirements that put an impermissible onus on students and faculty members seeking to exercise their constitutional rights of assembly and demonstration.

FIRE has not yet seen Hahs’ proposed policy, but if Isaacs’ description is accurate the implications are breathtaking:

Proposed by university president Sharon K. Hahs, the Policy Concerning Demonstrations on Campus, Distribution and Display of Visual Communications and Solicitation of Signatures on Campusdubbed DDS for shortwas submitted last month to the faculty senate and three other campus groups representing students and employees, with a request that they buy in. Opening with a statement that posits an opposition between "constitutionally guaranteed liberties" and "the duty to educate," it requires an advance "reservation request" for any person or group planning to hold a demonstration, hand out flyers, display posters, or gather signatures on a petition. The request would have to be submitted no later than one week in advance for students and employees (two for everyone else), and include copies of any visual communications that would be used. Although there’s an "exception" procedure for "spontaneous" demonstrationsinvolving on-the-spot approval by a representative of the dean’s officethey’d clearly be discouraged.

These activities would also be limited to specific locations and hours, in effect creating free speech zones within the campus. Although NEIU is a commuter school, with many students attending evening classes, no demonstrations would be allowed inside university buildings after 4:30 PM. Outdoor demonstrations would have to wrap up an hour before sunset. Demonstratorsdefined as "one or more persons engaged in a public manifestation of a particular point of view"would have to submit to mandatory supervision by the dean’s office. Obscenity and excessive noise would be forbidden.

Such restrictions on free speech on a public campus are blatantly unconstitutional. While public colleges and universities may enact narrowly tailored "reasonable time, place and manner" restrictions, as established by the Supreme Court in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989), the measures proposed here go much too far. Indeed, most of these types of restrictions have failed to pass constitutional muster when challenged in court. For instance, in 2003, FIRE helped coordinate litigation challenging Texas Tech University’s "free speech gazebo," which limited the expressive activity of 28,000 students to one small gazebo on campus. The challenge was successful; a federal court determined that Texas Tech’s policy must be interpreted to allow free speech for students on "park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas…irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not." Roberts v. Haragan, 346 F. Supp. 2d 853, 861 (N.D. Tex. 2004).

The court of public opinion has proven a powerful tool as well, for numerous universities have repealed their free speech zone policies when FIRE has forced them to try to defend such contemptuous treatment of their students’ free speech rights in public. Valdosta State University (VSU) in Georgia recently became the latest university to bow to such pressures, when current president Patrick Schloss repealed VSU’s appalling "Free Expression Area" policy. VSU’s repeal followed a massive public campaign waged by FIRE, anchored by our ad in U.S. News & World Report. VSU had previously confined free speech to an area representing less than 1% of VSU’s 168-acre campus, and even then only between the hours of 12:00–1:00 p.m. and 5:00–6:00 p.m.

But even VSU didn’t demand that students request use of the free speech zone a full week ahead of their planned event (their window was 48 hours), and didn’t demand to see all planned materials for display and distribution in advance. Though often held up by FIRE as a paragon of illiberal speech policies, the former VSU policy seems downright enlightened compared to some elements of Hahs’ proposal for NEIU. (Unsurprisingly, NEIU receives a "red light" rating in FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009 report.)

Unfortunately, Isaacs’ efforts to gain access to a faculty senate meeting where the proposal was discussed were frustrated. After Isaacs identified herself as a member of the press, a faculty member motioned to hold a closed session and she was forced out. But she does report that there is worry that the proposal will be adopted without faculty approval, and that it will be quietly adopted over the winter holiday. Isaacs reports that members of the faculty senatethough not wanting to air their concerns in publicconsider the measure "stifling."

Russell Benjamin, a faculty member at NEIU who was also left out of the meeting, is fully aware of the issues is at stake. As Isaacs reports:

Benjamin, an associate professor of political science, says he showed up for the meeting because he considers the proposed policy "very disturbing" and was hoping the senate and the other groups would refuse to endorse it. "I think people should have free speech everywhere," he says. "Two years ago I received a letter announcing that I was head of a committee to deal with the issue of free speech zones on this campus. I had not been consulted about that, and I made sure they knew that I would not serve on such a committee. I don’t believe that a university should have zones of free speech, or that people should be required to have prior approval for buttons, T-shirts, and signs." All of America is a free speech zone, Benjamin adds. As for the meeting we were booted from: "Both the proposed policy and the debates on it should be public."

In light of the fact that NEIU and one of its top officials are currently being sued by another professor who claims she was retaliated against after criticizing university polices, this is a brave stand to take, and FIRE is glad to see this resolve displayed by a member of NEIU’s faculty. We will certainly keep Torch readers posted as FIRE learns more about the situation at NEIU.

Schools:  Northeastern Illinois University Valdosta State University Texas Tech University