UMass Amherst to Students: Free Speech Isn’t Free

November 10, 2006

Administrators at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst have instituted a new policy whereby students wishing to post flyers on the bulletin boards surrounding the university’s Student Union and Campus Center will now have to pay one dollar per flyer per day to gain access to the bulletin board. In announcing the policy, Campus Design and Copy (CD&C), the office now responsible for oversight of the bulletin boards, had either the audacity or the dark sense of humor to refer to the bulletin boards as “public bulletin boards” and praise the new pay-for-space system as both “less expensive” and “less frustrating.”

Sources on campus estimate the size of the bulletin board to be approximately 4’ x 16’. Assuming that such a space, if full, will hold about 70 flyers, and assuming that the space will often be full (a questionable presumption in light of the new rule, but the sheer mass of flyers populating the boards was indeed one of the reasons listed for the policy change by CD&C), CD&C will stand to make roughly 25,000 dollars per year if the bulletin board is full to capacity every day. That’s not exactly chump change, especially when one considers that this revenue is being derived for the use of a formerly free resource.

The policy is more insidious than just an old-fashioned money grab, however. What’s really worrying about the pay-to-post system is that not only does it condition student speech on the ability to pay for it, but the system also quietly introduces an element of administrative prior review into student posting. That is to say that implicit within the policy is the fact that every potential posting will have to be seen, read, and presumably approved by Campus Design and Copy before it makes its way onto the bulletin boards. What if one wanted to announce one’s displeasure with CD&C? Or wanted to advertise the existence of a competitor? Still more important: suppose one wanted to criticize the university administration itself, or organize meetings of university critics? Would CD&C review submitted flyers on a content-neutral basis?

The problem is that students shouldn’t even have to be asking questions like these. Public bulletin space at a public university should be just that: public. A dollar a day might seem like simply a minor annoyance, a small burden, but it unquestionably opens the door to larger abuses.

Schools:  Dartmouth College