WVU Eases Campus-Speech Rules

November 12, 2002

By Ellen Sorokin at The Washington Times

Protests and political discourse are no longer restricted at West Virginia University, where officials have abandoned a policy that limited public debate on campus to designated “free-speech zones.”

WVU’s Board of Governors discarded the policy Friday after months of protests by students and faculty, and a lawsuit filed by civil libertarians who said the policy violated First Amendment rights.

“Large groups under the policy are free to meet wherever they want to, and as long as people act in a responsible manner, I have no concerns whatsoever,” said Thomas Dorer, a WVU general counsel, in an interview with the Daily Athenaeum, the school’s newspaper.

Under the old policy, student or faculty groups with more than 50 people were allowed to demonstrate only in seven freespeech zones, each the size of a small classroom. Students who violated the policy faced a number of disciplinary actions, including expulsion.

The university is the latest in a string of colleges nationwide, including the University of Wisconsin, New Mexico State and the University of South Florida, to either abandon or revise their freespeech zone policies. Even though such zones are the latest trend on campuses, it is not clear how many institutions have adopted such policies, educators said.

One group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, had sent a letter to WVU President David C. Hardesty Jr. last spring, urging his administration to revoke the policy. Yesterday, the group said it was pleased with the university’s decision.

“This is a major victory for freedom of speech, and the university has reaffirmed its obligation to the First Amendment,” said Thor Halvorssen, FIRE’s executive director. “The entire college campus is a free-speech zone. It’s a great step forward.”

The zones were located in front and behind the university’s studentunion building — locations that students and professors said were too far from buildings where some of the most politically charged events typically are held.

The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based watchdog group, sued the university last year over the issue.

“These zones should have been eliminated because the most important word in the phrase ‘free speech’ is the word free,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute.

“These zones made free speech not free. Now, we’re pleased that the university has reconsidered the unconstitutional ramifications of its free-expression policy.”

The new policy, which takes effect immediately, still imposes some restrictions so that protesters “respect the rights of everyone on campus.”

Groups are not allowed to protest within 8 feet of another person or group, without the expressed consent of that person or group. Groups are also prohibited from gathering near the entrances of health care facilities.

“I think this is a fine policy,” Mr. Dorer said. “I had no concerns legally in its prior version; I have no concerns legally in its current version. The purpose is to make sure everyone understands what would be the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that the university expects persons to follow when engaged in speech activities and similar activities.”

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Schools: West Virginia University Cases: West Virginia University: Limit on Speech to Campus “Free Speech Zones”