Free speech would no longer be confined to a corner of campus under new rules University of North Florida officials passed Wednesday.
The decision revises a proposal that restricted impromptu demonstrations, speeches or even acoustic music to a "free speech zone" between the Robinson Student Life Center and the Fine Arts Center. To speak out anywhere else, students had to apply for a permit three weeks in advance.
The Educational Policy Committee of the Board of Trustees approved the rules unanimously. The full board still has to approve the changes and will consider the issue at its March meeting.
Trustees tabled the old proposal in September after experts and students questioned its constitutionality. So-called "free speech zones" have been the subject of lawsuits nationwide.
The new proposal seeks to protect students’ free speech rights while preventing disruptions to classes.
UNF’s new rules delete references to the "free speech zone" and permit students to participate in "informal, unscheduled, and unamplified expressions of opinion or musical events" without prior approval.
"Formal" events involving large numbers of students or events where students would use microphones or amplifiers must be approved at least two weeks in advance by the Office of Student Life. That’s down from the three weeks previously required.
If two weeks’ notice is not possible, the rules say exceptions could be made.
"This reads to me like an honest attempt to deal with free speech issues on campus," said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The group has successfully sued or settled with universities that created free-speech zones, and Lukianoff was critical of UNF’s first attempt at a free speech policy.
Lukianoff praised UNF for allowing demonstrations to occur without prior approval as long as they do not disrupt university activities. He cautioned the university should stick to a definition of what is disruptive so officials do not simply shut down speech they consider offensive.
UNF officials said they were happy with the changes.
"We’ve made a few adjustments to make certain our campus is open to demonstrations as long as [they’re] orderly," General Counsel Karen Stone said.
But the only area the rules suggest students speak out is the old free speech zone.
After the meeting, Stone said the reference was not meant to exclude other areas. UNF President John Delaney said students may also use parking lots, main university exits and entrances and the plaza between the UNF Arena and fitness center.
"This is such a large campus there is plenty of areas that are well-traveled to demonstrate," Delaney said.
The university would not regulate the content of a speech or demonstration, but officials could deny a request if they think it would disrupt academic activities, scheduled public functions or pedestrian or other traffic. The proposal would allow campus police to arrest people who violate the rules.
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FREE SPEECH RULES
The University of North Florida’s rules on demonstrations and free speech on campus call speech and assembly "basic and essential freedoms" but allow officials to "regulate time, place and manner so that the activities do not intrude upon or interfere with the academic programs and administrative processes of the university."
Here are some of the rules’ key components:
— Students need permission to hold events in or near academic buildings, residence halls, athletic facilities and nature trails.
— Students may speak out in other areas of campus without prior approval as long as they do not use microphones or amplifiers and cause no disruption of academic activities, scheduled public functions, or pedestrian or other traffic.
— Students may set up booths to distribute petitions, handbills or literature, or display signs if they reserve space a week in advance with the Office of Student Life.
Schools: University of North Florida