TOLEDO, Ohio, August 20, 2015—Incoming and returning students at the University of Toledo (UT) will be protected by a newly established policy on freedom of expression. The new policy comes almost a year after campus police officers suppressed the peaceful protest activities of students at a lecture by political strategist Karl Rove. Alongside the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has worked with UT officials to craft an affirmative statement upholding students’ First Amendment rights, including the right to peaceful protest and demonstration.
“FIRE commends the University of Toledo for taking this important step to make its policies more firmly support students’ First Amendment rights,” said Peter Bonilla, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The new expression policy makes it clear that any person on campus can engage in expressive activities, regardless of viewpoint, as befits a public university bound by the First Amendment.”
On September 15, 2014, Rove spoke at UT as part of the university’s Jesup Scott Honors College Distinguished Lecture Series. The event was open to the public and the tickets were free, with UT students having first priority. Before Rove’s lecture started, a group of UT students and community members sought to peacefully protest Rove’s appearance by distributing literature to attendees and displaying posters criticizing Rove’s involvement in President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Two campus police officers, however, prevented the protesters from entering the event carrying their posters, despite their explanation that they would not disrupt the lecture or block the views of other attendees.
Despite preventing the protesters from entering the lecture with their posters and even implying that they could be arrested for doing so, the officers failed to cite any UT policy justifying their action when asked, even after a student provided them with a copy of UT’s Student Code of Conduct.
After ADC alerted FIRE to the incident, FIRE wrote to UT on October 10, 2014, warning the university that enforcing unwritten policies that violate its students’ First Amendment rights was unconstitutional.
As FIRE frequently points out, unwritten or excessively vague speech policies are inevitably enforced unevenly and double standards are far too common in the absence of clear guidance. Indeed, photos from inside a 2013 meeting of the UT Board of Trustees show a far more tolerant attitude regarding the rights of protesters to carry signs and posters.
In response to FIRE and ADC’s concerns, UT worked with the organizations to craft a new statement of principles regarding on-campus expression, UT’s “Expression on Campus” policy. The policy took effect on June 1, 2015.
“We applaud the University of Toledo for putting together a campus-wide policy that reiterates students’ constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Reem Subei, Legal Fellow with ADC’s Midwest chapter. “It was a pleasure to work with FIRE and the university on drafting this policy which lends strength and empowerment to student speech.”
“We hope that UT’s improvements don’t stop with the enactment of this welcome new policy,” said FIRE’s Bonilla. “FIRE is happy to work with UT to reform its remaining speech codes in the hope that unconstitutional censorship like we saw last fall becomes a thing of the past.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org