Under Pressure from FIRE and Students, University of North Texas Eliminates Free Speech Zones

October 26, 2009

FIRE is very pleased to report that the University of North Texas (UNT) has revised its “Free Speech and Public Assembly Policy,” which previously provided for only six “free speech areas” on campus where students could “engage in constitutionally protected speech and expression at the University of North Texas.” The policy further required students and student groups intending to use the free speech zones to request approval from the Dean of Students and to make reservations “at least two working days in advance.” The new policy, which will reportedly go into effect this week, eliminates UNT’s free speech zones. The policy change comes after pressure from FIRE and students on campus, including the UNT Free Speech Coalition.

As a public institution bound by the First Amendment, UNT’s free speech zones were too restrictive to pass constitutional muster. In our September 9 letter to UNT President Gretchen Bataille, FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley wrote:

As a public institution, UNT is legally obligated to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. By requiring free speech activities to take place in free assembly areas, UNT has failed to uphold this obligation. The only possible defense of UNT’s policy would be that it presents a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction as allowed by cases like Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989). There is nothing reasonable, however, about transforming the vast majority of the university’s propertyindeed, public propertyinto a censorship area, or about maintaining a system of onerous requirements by which students must abide in order to exercise their fundamental rights.

The United States Supreme Court has observed that “[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.'” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (internal citation omitted). This means that at a public campus, restrictions on free speech must be the exception, not the rule. Pointing out how UNT’s free speech zones conflict with this conception of the public university, Will wrote:

[T]o be considered legal, restrictions on time, place, and manner must be narrowly tailored to serve substantial governmental interests. The generalized concern for order that underlies the establishment of “free speech zone” policies is neither specific nor substantial enough to justify such restrictions.

FIRE’s letter was prompted in part by the dedicated efforts of the UNT Free Speech Coalition, whose members met with Bataille in August to voice their concerns about UNT’s free speech zones.

Now, the combined efforts of FIRE and concerned UNT students have borne fruit. According to an article published last week in The North Texas Daily, UNT has announced a new policy governing speech on campus that eliminates the university’s free speech zones.

Students may protest, rally or voice their opinions anywhere on campus under UNT’s new free speech policy.

After meetings with student organizations, letters from civil rights groups and repeated conferences with its legal counsel, UNT created a new policy for public assembly that could go into effect as early as Wednesday.

President Gretchen Bataille approved the new free speech rules.

“Basically, the campus is now a free speech area. We do not restrict free speech. We have done away with the zones,” Bataille said.

This isn’t the first time that FIRE has defeated unconstitutional free speech zones on campus. As Will wrote in our letter:

FIRE has successfully challenged free speech zones at universities across the nation, including those at West Virginia University, Seminole Community College in Florida, Citrus College in California, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Texas Tech University, and the University of Nevada-Reno. In all of these cases, the institutions have either decided to open their campuses to expressive activities or have been forced by a court to do so. For instance, in FIRE’s case at Texas Tech, a federal court determined that Texas Tech’s policy must be interpreted to allow free speech for students on “park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas … irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not.” See Roberts v. Haragan, 346 F. Supp. 2d 853 (N.D. Tex. 2004).

UNT’s Denton, Texas campus is within the jurisdiction of the federal Northern District of Texas, and is thus directly bound by the 2004 Roberts decision. Therefore, reforming UNT’s free speech zones was likely the only legally acceptable option.

FIRE is confident that opening UNT’s campus to unfettered freedom of expression for students will enhance the educational experience. As Will told The North Texas Daily,

Students at UNT need to be aware of the fact that the value of their diploma will only be increased by these changes. Going to school in an environment where expression is celebrated and not hidden and students are exposed to a wide range of ideas is the point of a modern liberal education.

As we said a couple of weeks ago when we commended The College of William & Mary for revising its free speech policies to receive a green-light rating from FIRE: It’s not often we get to praise a university for acting to protect the free speech rights of its students and faculty members. It’s particularly gratifying, then, to be able to applaud UNT todayboth students and adminstratorsfor a job well done. FIRE congratulates the dedicated students who worked to change these policies, and we commend UNT President Gretchen Bataille for upholding UNT’s constitutional responsibility to make its campus the ultimate “free speech zone.”

Schools:  University of North Texas