WVU Ends ‘Free-Speech Zones’

November 17, 2002

By Bill Steigerwald at Pittsburgh Sunday Tribune-Review

Students at West Virginia University are now free to practice First Amendment rights on their entire campus.

Until nine days ago, WVU’s 22,000 undergrads — like students at hundreds of other colleges whose restrictive free-speech policies have raised the ire of civil libertarians — were able to practice their First Amendment rights only on about 5 percent of the campus.

It took months of protests from students and faculty, plus legal pressure from civil libertarian watchdog groups such as the Rutherford Institute and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to liberate the lair of the Mountaineers.

On Nov. 8, the university’s Board of Governors dumped a policy that had restricted campus protests or rallies involving more than 50 persons to seven tiny, out-of-the-way “free-speech zones.”

Now, for the first time in nearly five years, groups such as the College Republicans or Students for Economic Justice can hand out fliers or protest the food in the dining halls anywhere on campus, as long as they do it responsibly and peacefully, a university spokesperson said last week.

WVU’s decision “is a monumental victory in the battle against freespeech zones,” said executive director Thor Halvorssen of FIRE, a Philadelphia-based watchdog group that promotes free speech on college campuses.

Equally pleased with the decision is John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va., group dedicated to defending constitutional liberties. It sued WVU over its free-speech zones last year.

Free-speech zones “are anathema to free speech,” Whitehead said, adding that “universities shouldn’t erect them in the first place and it shouldn’t take lawsuits to get them to change it.”

Rutherford does not know how many U.S. colleges use free-speech zones. But the former 1960s activist said WVU’s decision will slow a national trend toward “a lockdown mentality” in schools and elsewhere that he says has only been getting worse since the high school massacre at Columbine, Colorado, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Courts have ruled that free speech can be regulated, he said, as long as restrictions are reasonable in time, place and manner. But allowing free speech on a tiny part of the campus, or allowing it only behind the stadium on Sundays when no one is there, doesn’t meet those standards, he said.

“Free-speech zones are just a guise to do away with so-called free speech,” Whitehead said. “The word ‘free’ means ‘free.’ What they want to do is put free speech in a spot where no one will hear it.”

At WVU, he said, that meant black students were prevented from protesting in front of the Black Studies Center and that Students for Economic Justice couldn’t be near the business administration building.

According to the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, there have been minor troubles at the University of Pittsburgh, where students report campus police regularly prevent students from handing out leaflets or holding demonstrations.

The University of Pittsburgh has no formal free-speech zone policy on its Oakland campus, said school spokesman Robert Hill.

Pitt students who want to rally or protest on campus must register and receive university approval for a specific location, he said. And the event cannot interrupt classes or restrict the comings and goings of faculty or students or disrupt operations of the university.

“Our approach to approval is not content-driven,” Hill said. “It is driven by the need to preserve the normal operations of the university while the demonstration is being conducted, so that others can enjoy their own free speech.”

Enjoying her First Amendment freedoms at Pitt is often difficult, however, said student activist Andrea DeChellis, 21, of Coraopolis.

A fourth-year student majoring in social work and women’s studies, DeChellis said Pitt’s campus police regularly harass student activists and generally make things difficult near the William Pitt Union and on the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning.

DeChellis, an elected member of the student government, said groups such as Students in Solidarity and the Rainbow Alliance are often told by campus police to move off sidewalks or put their fliers away or face arrest.

“Any criticism of Pitt policy brings us problems,” said DeChellis, adding that undercover campus police regularly attend rallies, where they take pictures and gather information.

Pitt student Paul Cooley, of Students in Solidarity, said, “It’s almost laughable what a threat they think we are.”

Pitt spokesman Hill would neither confirm nor deny the undercover activities, saying he did not want to comment “about the ways the university ensures campus safety.”

DeChellis said she has never been cited and students have cooperated with campus police. But requests to authorities and police to put down on paper exactly where handing out leaflets is permitted and where public sidewalks are located have been ignored.

The ACLU’s Greater Pittsburgh Chapter has been helping students like DeChellis with free-speech issues for about three years, said executive director Witold Walczak. It’s the only local school he is aware of where free-speech issues are a concern.

Pitt’s vague rules essentially have the effect of prohibiting political activity anywhere on campus unless the administration permits it, he said, and the ACLU has put Pitt on permanent warning that it “will go into court and ask questions later” to uphold the freespeech rights of students.

That threat has paid dividends several times, including only two weeks ago, Walczak said. A campus group called POG put out a news release saying they were going to demonstrate by the Cathedral, but the day before the event the administration called and said they would be arrested if they showed up because they had no permit.

“We called Pitt and reminded them of our ongoing threat to file suit, and the protest went off without a hitch, ” Walczak said. “And the POG people had their say.”

Bill Steigerwald can be reached at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7983.

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