UIC tells students they cannot speak 'freely like this' while tabling for conservative group

Students attempting to exercise their First Amendment right were told by university officials that they needed a reservation to do so.

School officials at the University of Illinois Chicago told a group of TPUSA students last Tuesday that they were not permitted to set up a table on campus without a reservation, and allegedly threatened them with arrest if they did not comply. 

In a video obtained exclusively by Campus Reform, a university administrator tells members of the school’s TPUSA chapter that they were not allowed to table “freely like this on the quad.”

The footage was captured by Eduardo Sandoval, UIC student and president of the school’s TPUSA chapter. Sandoval identified the official as Ruby Lepe, assistant director of building management.

“You have to make a reservation,” Lepe said in the video. “All this space here, this space inside the building, and the grassy areas, are reserved for meetings and conferences.”

“A couple days ago, as I was tabling at UIC in between the Quad and the Student Center East, not disruptive at all,” Sandoval told Campus Reform. “The head of the UIC Building Management, Ruby, approached my table and told us that we have to leave.”

Lepe told the group that they were not permitted to table without a reservation per UIC’s Open Expression policy. “We’ve had people here who are not UIC and try to come in here because it’s public property, but they cannot be here either unless they’re supported by a student org and have a reservation for it,” Lepe said in the video.

“You shouldn’t have to reserve a space on a public property,” A member of the group objected.

Lepe responded, “This isn’t public property, it’s university property.”

Lepe explained that several prior incidents had resulted in arrests. “So they’re definitely getting stricter about it just because we’ve had a lot of altercations lately.”

She referenced a recent incident where a group entered a building on campus to protest the practice of abortion. “But then we discovered that they weren’t even students to begin with so they were definitely arrested,” Lepe said. 

Sandoval told Campus Reform that following the scene captured on video, he was told by Vance Pierce, Associate Director of Student Organizations, that he would be arrested if he did not leave. 

“I told him that I thought that I had freedom of speech at a public university,” Sandoval said. “He replied to me by saying that doesn’t apply to me since as a registered student organization, there are other procedures for me to follow.”

Pierce has not responded to Campus Reform’s request for comment. 

In an email to Campus Reform, Lepe confirmed that the event was shut down because the group lacked a reservation. Regarding the possibility of arrest, Lepe told Campus Reform, “I would first and foremost refer them to the Dean’s office because they are students and Center for Student involvement since they are a registered organization. Outside entities not supported by a campus department or a student organization refusing to leave the campus are subject to trespassing.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group which monitors the rights of students and faculty on college campuses, gave UIC’s open expression procedures a “yellow” rating in October of last year.

The policy in question requires that students who wish to conduct “Organized Public Speech” must register 48 hours in advance and reserve one of a select group of specific spaces for such activity.

FIRE defines yellow-light policies as those which restrict a “limited amount” of protected expression, or “by virtue of vague wording, can too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

“At public institutions,” FIRE says, “yellow light policies are unconstitutional.”

Alex Morey, Program Officer with FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said that they urged UIC to change this policy last November.

Morey told Campus Reform, “These long delays in registering speakers is particularly problematic when students need to speak out immediately on unfolding events. Imagine a spontaneous protest of a real-time event cropping up on campus. UIC’s policy requires students to stop themselves, march over to the administration office, get permission, and tell everyone to come back next week, by which time protest may be useless.” 

“You can see how this policy robs urgent expression of its momentum, message, and power to effect real-time change,” Morey said. “Sometimes students need to speak out today. Where they are. Right now. The First Amendment strongly protects the right to do that in the open areas of public campuses without needing to get government permission first.”

Addressing the right of schools to implement time, place and manner restrictions, Morey said, “Reasonable is the key word. For example, the administrator in the video states students would need permission to table inside of buildings. This is typically reasonable as the university has a strong interest in, say, maintaining safety and the flow of traffic to classes, inside its buildings. Very large protests in open campus spaces, for example, with more than 50 people or that use amplified sound, may also be restricted if they cause material and substantial disruption to the functioning of the university.”

“But UIC is being unreasonable in restricting student speech in many outdoor areas where the university arguably has little need for strict control,” Morey added. “They’re also imposing burdensome registration requirements and long wait times before students can speak in these public spaces.”

Ultimately, Morey concluded, “With this policy, UIC seems intent on converting many truly public spaces on campus into more limited forums over which they can exert more control. The First Amendment does not permit this.”

“It’s definitely ironic that these students are tabling against free speech zones, only to find out that they’re in one,” Morey added.

Overall, UIC received a “red” speech code rating, which it received for its network communications policy. “A red light university has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” the organization said.