UC Riverside: Told You So

December 15, 2011

Just two weeks ago, writing about free speech in the University of California system, I noted:

UC Riverside’s policy with the misleading name “Freedom of Speech in Promoting Events and Organizations” states that “[P]ublicity should not contain … violent images or language against individuals or groups” and goes even further to state, “When considering forms of expression to promote your organization or event, check to make sure … [t]he expression does not portray negative or belittling images of others.”

This is an unconstitutional threat to free speech. UC Riverside students are not allowed to, say, portray UC Davis Lieutenant John Pike (of pepper spray infamy) or campus police generally in a negative or belittling way, or to portray violent images of police action designed to spur others to protest police overreactions to student activism. Furthermore, UC Riverside requires prior scheduling for any protest activity that “can reasonably be expected to attract a crowd of 25 or more,” essentially prohibiting spontaneous demonstrations in response to unfolding events.

UC Riverside (UCR) might not have gotten the message, since its latest attempt to regulate such speech hit some snags this week. According to the website “Say No to UCR Protest Guidelines,” UCR silently posted new regulations that caused so much of an uproar that they were removed from the site yesterday. The website states that 942 people had signed a petition against the new regulations. The petition, which clearly was successful, argued:

The guidelines impose repressive rules such as a requirement that protest plans be reported a month ahead and approved two weeks in advance, censorship of protest flyers and posters by the administration, the presence of a UCR staff person, and restrictions on movement around the campus. The nature and content of the Protest Guidelines infringe on and curtail students’ freedom of speech and assembly, which are fundamental human rights protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Indeed, among other problems, the regulations appeared to provide no room for peaceful, spontaneous expression. We explained why that’s problematic back in May after students gathered to mark the killing of Osama bin Laden, and again just this week after students held an impromptu candlelight vigil at Virginia Tech following a fatal campus shooting. In fact, we have explained this point several times, such as in 2010, after San Francisco State University became one of the latest in a long line of schools to remove unconstitutional restrictions on student gatherings such as “free speech zones.”

The withdrawn regulations at UCR also impermissibly required that a “registered student organization or department must sponsor your protest,” unduly limiting expression on campus. I understand that UCR may want to Hold Somebody Responsible If Things Get Out of Hand, but the people to hold responsible are the ones who actually break the law or violate permissible campus rules.

Anyway, the petition’s message reached UCR Chancellor Timothy P. White loud and clear. On Tuesday he wrote the campus (PDF): “I am seeking broad consultation to review and revise the recently posted guidelines for protests and assemblies … conducted by a task force consisting of students, faculty, and staff, who in turn will be asked to consult widely …. Our goal is to be certain that we fully support the right to free speech and peaceful assembly on campus.” White’s letter announced that he would chair the task force and that any proposed changes would be subject to a comment period before finalizing the policy.

Then, yesterday, Chancellor White wrote the campus a second time, adding that “We were in error to post guidelines that neither comport with our values nor reflect the realities of how the campus exercises the right to free speech. We fully understand that most protests and demonstrations are spontaneous, and are in response to current events.”

That’s an excellent acknowledgment, and it looks like UCR is on the road to a much better policy. Meanwhile, FIRE would be very pleased to work with UCR to revise the rest of UCRs unconstitutional speech policies so that the free speech guarantees in the U.S. and California constitutions are fully honored at the university

Schools:  University of California – Riverside