College clarifies free speech zone policy amid mounting pressure

A community college in Texas clarified its policy on free speech zones after more than three months of questioning from concerned students and Campus Reform.

Lone Star College-Tomball, a community college in Texas, first came to Campus Reform’s attention in April after the school punished a conservative student for voicing support for the Second Amendment in the wake of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

[Related: Student claims he was punished for pro-2A views]

Following the conservative student’s punishment, Campus Reform brought to light that the school promised “freedom of thought” to students, but nowhere did it commit to freedom of speech. Five days later, the school created a page touting its new Free Speech Zones, confined for undergraduates to two walkways on campus

The school’s response prompted concern by students, activists, and free speech organizations, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE).

Under the new policy, it was unclear whether students needed to physically be inside the Free Speech Zones to use their First Amendment Rights. Those who called the school seeking clarification were redirected to voicemail, or, in many cases, their calls were disconnected

[Related: College hangs up on student asking about free speech policy

Quade Lancaster, the conservative student who was punished for expressing conservative views on guns, was one of the students who told Campus Reform his call was disconnected. 

“What are my free speech rights?” he asked. “Why are [they] refusing to clarify?” 

FIRE’s Laura Beltz initially encouraged the school to clarify its policy back in July. But the school went radio silent until the first week of classes, only to finally clarify on Tuesday that the Free Speech Zones “do not diminish students’ or employees’ right of speech or expression on other premises.” 

[Related: FIRE urges Lone Star-Tomball to clarify speech policy]

Further, the policy elaborated on its “viewpoint and content neutral” restrictions, explaining that students “will have an opportunity to express contrary viewpoints as appropriate for the forum.” 

FIRE’s Laura Beltz commended the school in a statement to Campus Reform

“FIRE is pleased to see that the college has clarified its policy. When students can’t understand what is required of them by an ambiguous policy, they’re likely to be discouraged from conducting expressive activities at all, rather than risking punishment.

“After this revision, it’s clear that students are not required to use the designated Free Speech Areas, so students won’t need to worry about being punished for conducting events outside of those areas and will be free to express themselves on the campus.” 

In a Wednesday call, Lancaster,  who alleges he was kicked out of student government due to his conservative views,  — expressed frustration and disillusionment. “They should have had their [free speech policy] together back in April. Not September!” he said. 

“This has been six months since I initially started asking, dozens of news stories, and continuous stonewalling towards the media, myself, and other students. The public needs to know about this.”  

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