In defense of their free speech rights, students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) recently took to protesting a proposed new policy aimed in part at student demonstrations at VCU. The policy in question prohibited the following:
Participating in an on-campus or off-campus demonstration, riot or activity that disrupts the normal operations of the University and/or infringes on the rights of others; leading or inciting others to disrupt scheduled and/or normal activities within any campus building or area.
The protesting students argued that the policy was too broadly worded and could be used against peaceful demonstrations and rallies, a core First Amendment activity. While the policy was limited to only that conduct which "disrupts the normal operations of the University and/or infringes on the rights of others," its explicit mention of campus demonstrations (and, notably, off-campus demonstrations as well) arguably posed a threat to students’ free speech rights.
(FIRE has not to date rated VCU’s policies on student speech for our Spotlight database. We will be adding VCU to Spotlight soon, however, and at that time we will rate any and all speech codes maintained by the university.)
Regardless of the policy’s merits, it seems the students were able to convince the administration to ensure the protection of free speech rights:
After receiving numerous e-mails speaking out against this proposed change to the code of conduct, University officials backtracked and claimed they never intended to restrict peaceful demonstrations on campus. They stated that the proposed changes were in response to the so-called "riots" that happened last year after the VCU Rams basketball team lost in the Final Four.
On April 18, VCU held a public forum in an attempt to get student input on the proposed changes. At the forum, officials announced that they had revised their proposal regarding demonstrations. The new proposed wording includes language that specifically protects peaceful protests. They also said they would push the deadline for approval to the fall semester in order to get more student input.
It’s good to see such student activism in defense of First Amendment rights having an appreciable impact, and that the VCU administration, to its credit, is committed to getting the policy language right rather than rushing a flawed policy out the door.
Again, FIRE will soon be adding VCU to our Spotlight database, and we will also be watching to see whether any newly enacted policies at VCU properly respect students’ freedom of expression.