UCSD Students Organize Against Proposed Speech Restrictions; FIRE Writes Letter

June 22, 2007

Hot on the heels of last month’s student walk-out in protest of the University of California, San Diego’s (UCSD’s) decision not to rehire Teaching Assistants Scott Boehm and Benjamin Balthaser due to their public criticism of the university, UCSD administrators are now seeking to implement a clearly unconstitutional new speech zone policy.

Both the timing of the proposed policy’s announcement (just a week after the walk-out and rally) and the terms of the policy itself suggest that UCSD administrators are seeking to clamp down on further student criticism of the university at the expense of students’ First Amendment rights. On June 8, UCSD administrators sent an email to all students announcing the proposed new policy and soliciting comment from students—that is, as long as student input was received by June 25.

So in just 17 short days—coincidentally enough, 17 days that just so happened to land in the middle of the spring finals rush—UCSD was asking its students to critique a major overhaul of the school’s free assembly guidelines. It’s pretty difficult to believe that UCSD designated such a small window for public comment by accident, especially since the announcement came just a week after the student walk-out.

As UCSD student Juan Vazquez described in a column for The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s student newspaper, even the administration’s e-mail seems to have been titled in such a way as to slip past students unnoticed:

In the chaos and frenzy of the Spring 2007 finals season, students at UC San Diego received a campus-wide e-mail with the catchy subject line of “Review of PPM 510-1 Section I” from sender “UCSD VC-BA/VC-SA.” While checking my inbox that Friday night, I only remember that I had two papers to write, a study group to attend, an angry stomach to feed and an empty coffee mug to fill. With a couple of clicks, I shrugged off this “review” of whatever PPM 510-1 was, oblivious to what I had just closed my mind to. The scary thing is, I’m willing to bet thousands of other UC San Diego students did precisely the same thing, equally oblivious to the fact that we had just ignored a passive warning that our freedoms of speech and advocacy on campus were undergoing some serious slaughtering.

Fortunately, with the prompting of a friend’s e-mail, Vazquez recognized the administrative sleight-of-hand at work, reviewed the policy, and started mobilizing his fellow students in a last-ditch, end-of-year effort to buy more time for review of the proposed changes. Vazquez created a website, started a Facebook group, and turned out 80 concerned UCSD students to a meeting with the school’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. Confronted with the groundswell of student opposition, the administration backpedaled, extending the deadline for comment until December 1.

And it’s a good thing they did, because UCSD students should have a lot to say about the administration’s proposed new changes. If enacted, the new policy would require UCSD to make reservations a day in advance for any expressive activity that could potentially draw more than 10 people. Specifically, the policy states:

Reservations for activities within the Designated Public Forums are recommended but not required unless (i) the activity can reasonably be expected to attract a crowd of 10 or more people or (ii) free-standing equipment will be used. Reservations must be made at least one business day in advance of the planned activity. Reserved activities shall have priority over non-reserved activities.

At a public college, a requirement this stringent is completely incompatible with the First Amendment. As FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris wrote in a letter sent today to UCSD:

A school as large as UCSD cannot credibly argue that any gathering of over 10 students—less than 0.05 percent of the student body—on the vast majority of campus requires a reservation, lest campus order be somehow threatened. Because of the size of UCSD’s student population, one could reasonably conclude that any event on campus could possibly draw more than 10 attendees. UCSD proposes to effectively require, then, that all “exercise[s] of free speech” occurring on campus be explicitly reserved at least one business day prior. Such a requirement is untenable in light of UCSD’s legal and moral duty to guarantee the constitutional rights of its students and faculty.

As ridiculous a change as that is, UCSD has more up its sleeve. The proposed policy would also prohibit “mak[ing] any person an involuntary audience or an involuntary participant of any event or activity.” In practice, this would provide any potential passer-by with an unconstitutional heckler’s veto over any expressive activity on campus. Further, UCSD seeks to mandate that “members of the University staff and faculty [] keep their personal Political Activity separate from their institutional role and from University activities,” but never bothers to define “Political Activity,” putting the policy at odds with basic concepts of academic freedom in the classroom. Finally, as if the policy needed any more black marks against it, UCSD seeks to establish “Designated Public Forums” around the UCSD campus “for the exercise of legally protected rights of free expression”—creating, in essence, free speech zones on campus. As Sam wrote in today’s letter:

While it appears that this provision does not unduly quarantine free expression to a mere fraction of the available campus, FIRE must stress that establishing “free speech zones,” as UCSD seeks to do here, undermines the fundamental conception of the American public university as a true “marketplace of ideas.”

In sum, UCSD students have every reason to oppose the unconstitutional curtailing of their First Amendment rights contained in UCSD’s changes. FIRE strongly encourages UCSD students to get involved and help put a stop to this loss of liberty on campus before it starts.

Schools:  University of California, San Diego