FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for May 2017: Virginia State University. This is Virginia State’s second time earning the Speech Code of the Month distinction; the last time was in December 2013, for a policy the university has since revised. Sadly, however, the university has not learned its lesson about speech codes in general.
Virginia State’s policy on “Rallies, Public Assemblies and Demonstrations,” found in the university’s 2016–2017 student organization handbook, requires student organizations to submit a formal request for “written approval … at least 10 days in advance of the demonstration.”
Ten days? Demonstrations are generally responses to current events — if you force a group to wait 10 days to demonstrate, the impact of their message is likely to be dramatically lessened by the passage of time. This limits the ability of the demonstrators to connect emotionally with their audience, which is an important aspect of any communicative act. As a California federal judge wrote in finding San Francisco State University’s civility requirement unconstitutional,
[F]or many people, what matters most about a particular instance of communication is whether it inspires emotions in the audience, i.e., whether it has the emotional power to move the audience to action or to a different level of interest in or commitment to an idea or cause.
Like many universities that violate their students’ right to free speech, Virginia State cites its authority to enact “time, place and manner” restrictions as justification for this impermissibly burdensome requirement. There is a key word missing from Virginia State’s description of “time, place and manner” restrictions, however, and that word is: “reasonable.” As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989), even content-neutral time, place and manner regulations must be “reasonable” and may not be “substantially broader than necessary to achieve the government’s interest.” While a public university certainly has an interest in ensuring that conditions on its campus are suitable to education, requiring groups to seek written approval 10 days in advance of any demonstration is far broader than necessary to achieve this goal, and has a severe impact on students’ ability to express themselves on campus.
For this reason, Virginia State University is our May 2017 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 the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.