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RUSSELLVILLE, Ark., Aug. 24, 2017 — Students at Arkansas Tech University have more room to exercise their First Amendment rights after the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to amend the school’s policies to open much of the outdoor public space at the center of its main campus to student speech and demonstration. The Aug. 17 vote marks a significant policy change on student speech rights prompted by a January 2017 letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that criticized the university’s free speech zones.
“Colleges can’t pick and choose the most convenient place for their students to be engaged citizens,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “We commend Arkansas Tech for working to make its campus a place where students can participate fully in public discourse.”
FIRE’s January letter stemmed from a September 2016 incident where several members of Arkansas Tech’s chapter of the national campus libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty held an outdoor “free speech ball” event to raise awareness about campus speech rights. They gathered under Hindsman Tower — a small central campus monument that was also one of only two outdoor areas designated for speech and demonstration — and invited students to write messages on a giant beach ball. Shortly after deciding to roll the ball to areas of campus with higher foot traffic, the students were stopped by a public safety officer and told to return to the free speech zone, which encompassed the space under the tower roof and five feet around its base.
FIRE wrote to Arkansas Tech in January, asking the university to revise its policies to protect students’ First Amendment rights. Under then-existing policy, students wishing to engage in any expressive activity or demonstration outside on campus were forced to choose between two small areas or seek the university’s permission a week ahead of time to go elsewhere.
In response to FIRE’s letter, Arkansas Tech General Counsel Thomas W. Pennington reviewed the university’s speech and demonstration policies and worked with FIRE to revise their language. The new policies designate much of the open, outdoor space at the heart of main campus for free expression without prior permission. The resulting policies were voted on and adopted by the Board of Trustees last week.
“The expanded footprint of the Hindsman Tower Quad free speech area accommodates the university’s growing student population and meets the institutional objective of providing appropriate recognition and support of the rights of students, employees of all categories and visitors to exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Director of University Relations Sam Strasner.
FIRE welcomes the opportunity to work with universities such as Arkansas Tech to reform unconstitutional campus speech codes.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Strasner, Director of University Relations, Arkansas Tech University: 479-498-6045; email@example.com