FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for November 2013: Rogers State University.
The Student Code (PDF) at Oklahoma’s Rogers State University includes a policy on “Campus Expression” that provides, in relevant part:
In order to protect the rights of all concerned individuals, any students or student organizations wanting to hold a peaceful protest must register with the Office of Student Affairs by filling out a “Campus Expression Form” at least three (3) days prior to the event. A meeting will be arranged with the event organizers, Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Campus Police to facilitate the event. Under special circumstances exceptions to the three-day regulation may be granted by the Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students or his/her designee.
Don’t be fooled by the policy’s lofty claim about protecting rights. No one’s rights are threatened by a spontaneous campus protest so long as protesters abide by reasonable rules prohibiting demonstrations from interfering with critical university functions. Indeed, the Campus Expression policy already contains just such rules: Demonstrations may not cause “interference with ingress or egress at University facilities, interruption of classes, damage to property, or disruption of the operation of the University, nor blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic, unless such traffic is diverted by previous arrangement with the Campus Police.” So why does Rogers State need three days of advance notice prior to allowing students to speak their minds? Answer: It doesn’t.
While administrators typically respond to criticism from free speech advocates by claiming these types of regulations are permissible as “time, place, and manner” restrictions, courts have held time and again that to be considered lawful, “time, place, and manner” restrictions must be “narrowly tailored” to serve a significant governmental interest, leaving open ample alternative channels for communication. Again: If student protesters at Rogers State are already prohibited from interrupting classes, disrupting university operations, and blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic, what is the university’s significant interest in requiring protests to be registered three days in advance?
By contrast, students may have a very significant interest in holding a spontaneous protest, since the emotional impact of speech on its audience often depends on its connection to unfolding events. This summer at the University of Alabama, for example, students wanted to hand out pro-choice fliers to counter a pro-life student group’s display of graphic, abortion-related images, having only learned of the pro-life group’s event the day before it was scheduled to take place. The university’s policies, however, required the group to obtain a permit at least three days in advance, by which time the pro-life event would have been over and fading from students’ memory.
Rogers State’s policy is not saved by the fact that a university administrator has license to grant “exceptions to the three-day regulation.” If anything, this only makes the policy worse, because it gives the university total discretionâ€•with no objective criteria for making the decisionâ€•to decide if and when spontaneous protests may take place on campus, allowing the university to favor or disfavor certain speech on the basis of its content.
This policy is a serious infringement on the First Amendment rights that the university is legally and morally obligated to uphold. For this reason, it is our November 2013 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email firstname.lastname@example.org 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 free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You can also add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.
Image: Rogers State University Library – City Data