Penn State police shut down free speech, cite non-existent policies

Summer Ratcliff
Managing Editor

  • Despite the school's policy to allow unrestricted 'expressive activity' in designated areas, campus police at PSU forced a YAL student to cease his free speech activism.
  • The student had a free speech wall and was distributing Constitutions when he was told he couldn't do so without a permit because the school was considered private property.
  • Young Americans for Liberty - Free Speech Wall 2014

    A student at the University Park campus of Penn State University (PSU) was told he was required to have a permit to demonstrate while conducting a free speech wall and distributing Constitutions Friday afternoon.

    Young Americans for Liberty member Kevin Caputo was in an area of campus that the university deems “suitable for expressive activity” when he was approached by a campus police officer who told him they needed a permit from the university in order to demonstrate or protest on campus property.

    "I am frightened to witness the continued erosion of my constitutional liberties..."   

    Most of Friday’s incident was caught on video by a field representative for the Leadership Institute and shared with Campus Reform. The video begins as the police officer approaches the area to ask who the free speech wall belongs to.

    After being asked for their IDs, the student explains to the police officer that he is with Young Americans for Liberty. The officer then requests that they not record her.

    “Can you put your phone away for me please?” the officer asks.

    “Isn’t this a public campus though?” Caputo asks.

    “But I don’t want to be recorded,” the officer responds. “I have the civil right to not be recorded.”

    “I’m pretty sure the Supreme Court decided that,” Caputo tells the officer. “I don’t mean to be that guy, but that’s what we’re here for.”

    The officer replies, “OK, but I’m just saying I wouldn’t like to be recorded.”

    While it is unclear what particular case Caputo was referencing, the Supreme Court’s refusal to reinstate an Illinois law prohibiting individuals from recording their interactions with police supports Caputo’s claim, as does Pennsylvania law, which the ACLU says, gives citizens the right to “videotape and audiotape police officers performing official duties in public.”

    The officer goes on to question whether the student had already been asked by someone else to take the display down, to which Caputo responds that he had been asked to take it down, but that his group felt they had the right to keep it up.

    The officer explains to Caputo that the university has a process in place that students must go through in order to protest on campus.

    “Ok, do you know that there’s a process that you have to go through through the university?” the officer asks.

    Caputo responds that they were under the impression that they were in a free speech zone, “or something along those lines.”

    Despite the fact that the university’s “Use of Outdoor Areas for Expressive Activity” policy states “reservation is voluntary” and simply ensures a group’s reservation is prioritized over a group that may not have reserved the space, the police officer goes on to tell the group they are required to go through the reservation process in order to “have some type of protest here on campus.”

    “So we have to get permission to protest?” Caputo asks.

    “Correct,” the officer responds.

    “In the free speech zones?” Caputo asks.

    The officer continues to reaffirm that university policy requires students to obtain a permit to hold a demonstration.

    “Yes… you have to get like what we call a permit and just so that Old Main is aware of it and we’re aware of it so we know that it’s permitted through campus.”

    The police officer goes on to tell the group that the school’s campus is considered private property.

    “It’s private property because it’s owned by the university. Unless they give you permission to…”

    Caputo interrupts, “but isn’t it a land grant university? Doesn’t the state own the land and they grant it to the university?”

    “Correct, but you have to get permission through the university because that’s who owns the land and that’s who gives you permission to do your demonstration,” the police officer says.

    While the student was not completely accurate in his assumption that a land-grant university is automatically a public university and therefore public property, Penn State University is in fact a public university and therefore students do have a constitutional right to demonstrate so long as the school’s policies are followed.

    In a second video recorded just a few minutes later, the police officer is heard asking the group if they were “passing out stuff, too.”

    Caputo responds, “we were: the Constitution.”

    “‘Cause that's just the same thing, because we have a rule and regulation about handbills and passing out things, so that's included in the permit as well,” the officer states.

    The school’s free expression policy states organizations may distribute “papers, pamphlets, and similar material” so long as it is “distributed in person” and done by the sponsoring organization.

    Spokespersons for Penn State University did not respond to Campus Reform by press time, however Caputo offered his thoughts regarding free speech on his campus.

    “As an American, I am frightened to witness the continued erosion of my constitutional liberties in the form of protest permits,” Caputo said. “As a devoted Penn Stater I am disturbed to see the university’s dysfunctional administration regulating student speech when it should be addressing other very serious issues.”


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    Summer Ratcliff

    Summer Ratcliff

    Managing Editor

    Summer Ratcliff is Campus Reform’s Managing Editor. Prior to joining Campus Reform, Summer worked as the Program Director of the National Journalism Center and News Editor of The Daily Athenaeum, West Virginia University's student newspaper. 

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