Free speech zones reluctantly enforced during Constitution Week

University officials often become combative while enforcing free speech zone policies, but on two recent occasions they were downright pleasant, even apologetic.

In one instance, a video of which was obtained by Campus Reform, a Northern Illinois University campus police officer addresses students associated with the school’s Young Americans for Liberty group, who had gathered in an outdoor area of campus Monday with signs and a petition advocating for free speech in honor of Constitution Week.

While insisting that the group comply with a university policy restricting “solicitation or leafleting” to a so-called “Free Speech Area,” the officer expresses a degree of sympathy for their position, and even offers to waive the requirement that they pre-register to use the free speech zone.

Jeremy Watson, the president of the YAL chapter, begins by asking the officer what consequences the group might face if it does not relocate.

“Obviously, we support free speech on campus,” the officer responds. “I mean, campus is a learning environment where people can be able to speak their minds, but the university also reserves the right to kind of control where it happens at.”

Pointing to a nearby area off camera, the officer notes that, “They actually call that the ‘freedom area’ so people can go over there and voice their opinions and speak,” and explains that “[t]he reason for it is just trying to keep people in one general area so it’s not a big uproar and people get all out of joint.”

When the officer casually asks Watson what cause the group is promoting and learns that they are there on behalf of the First Amendment, he remarks, “I’m all for it … that’s why I served twenty years in the military defending it,” but reiterates that “the policy on campus is that you get neutral sites for that.”

“So we can only do it in the MLK Commons?”

“That’s the preferred area, yes,” he tells them. “Generally they [school administrators] like to plan ahead of time,” he notes, but adds, “personally, free speech is free speech. If you guys could do it over there, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Bradley Hoey, Director of Campus Communications at NIU, told Campus Reform that the purpose of the free speech zone is not to stifle expression, but to provide an outlet for organized demonstrations that ensures students are not interrupted from their academic pursuits.

“The free speech ‘zone’ is really a misnomer,” he asserted. “The exchange of views and ideas occurs all over the NIU campus.”

Describing the area as “essentially our town square,” he explained that the central location of MLK commons underscores the school’s commitment to fostering the free exchange of ideas, adding, “We see no conflict between establishing this area for organized discussion and respect for the principle of free speech.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), however, offered a contrasting assessment in a statement provided to Campus Reform.

“Open areas of public college campuses should properly be considered public forums, where the government's power to limit speech is extremely narrow,” FIRE asserts. “But when public college administrators herd students wishing to speak their minds into tiny, remote ‘free speech zones,’ they effectively quarantine student speech—and threaten the First Amendment.”

While acknowledging that even public colleges and universities have a right to impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on free speech as long as such restrictions are narrow, non-partisan, and related to a legitimate government interest, FIRE argues that “there’s nothing reasonable about limiting all student expression to just one small area of campus.”

A separate incident, also recorded on video, occurred several days earlier—Constitution Day—at Lamar University in Texas, where another YAL group was approached by a school administrator while handing out Constitutions outside the student union.

Although the official successfully prevailed upon the students to cease their activities, even employing the inopportune formulation “no free speech today,” she also took efforts to help them reschedule for the following day without going through the formal process of notifying her office.

The video begins as the group’s president, Ian Smith, is explaining to the administrator the reason he had not reserved the space ahead of time, as required by university policy.

“I was told that because we don’t have a charter, because we don’t have five members, that we couldn’t officially make the reservation,” he tells her.

“Then you can’t officially be out here,” she replies.

“We’re just handing out Constitutions,” protests Jace Holyoak, a Leadership Institute field representative who was assisting the group.

“Well, this is the policy at Setzer Student Center,” she explains. “To do something like this you have to be a registered student organization. Otherwise Rand Paul, or whoever y’all are promoting for, would have to pay for y’all to be out here, and it’s $50 an hour … Unless you’re a registered student organization, faculty, or staff member—those entities can use the facility for free.”

“So what facility can we use for free?” Smith asks. “What is the policy for any other building on campus? What about the Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“Well that’s the free speech area, but they have to coordinate that through me, and we have an event out there, so …”

After pointing the area out to the group, the administrator informs them that they can’t use the area that day because of the previously scheduled event, but adds, “Y’all can come back and be out there tomorrow.”

“So no free speech today?” Holyoak asks

“No free speech today,” she confirms. “You’re supposed to still go through the office, so I can know who’s where … but since I’m talking to y’all right now, it is OK for you to access that free speech area tomorrow. How about that?”

“Even if we’re just going to hand out Constitutions for Constitution Day?” Smith asks, highlighting the significance of doing so on that particular day.

“That’s the free speech area,” she reiterates while gesturing toward the space. “That’s the only place you can be, and you can’t be there today.”

Brian Sattler, Director of Public Relations at Lamar University, told Campus Reform, however, that the administrator was mistaken in her description of the university’s policy, and that free speech activities are welcome throughout the campus.

“Lamar University is an open campus and any group or person, whether or not a student or employee, and whether or not invited by a registered student, faculty, or staff organization, may assemble and engage in free speech activities on the grounds of the campus,” he said. “The information provided by this individual was not accurate. We apologize that this misinformation was presented to the individuals and the organization.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete