VIDEO: Auburn tells students they need a permit for free speech

Students demonstrating against restrictive speech policies at Auburn University were forced to disperse Thursday by officials citing the very policies the students were protesting.

Several students affiliated with Young Americans for Liberty had gathered on campus Thursday morning with fliers, a petition, and plain white T-shirts in an effort to draw attention to Auburn’s imposing requirements for public expression, YAL chapter president Wesley Stone told Campus Reform, only to be interrupted and informed that groups are not allowed to assemble in any outdoor area of campus with first securing a permit at least 48 hours in advance.

“Auburn has free speech zones on campus, and we were protesting that,” Stone said. “We didn’t bother to get a permit, because why would we need a permit to exercise our free speech rights?”

While collecting signatures for a petition asking the school to repeal those rules, the YAL students sought to attract attention to their cause by inviting passersby to write complaints about the university on their white T-shirts, evoking a wide range of opinions, judging from photos taken by The Plainsman.

“This being a public university, you should be able to say whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want,” asserted Gordon Miller, a regional representative for YAL who was on hand for the demonstration. “We feel like that's being repressed here.”

In addition, the group handed out satirical “citations” to students for violating Auburn’s speech codes.

“This is a citation for exercising your right to free speech outside of the area designated by the university. We wish to remind you that your 1st Amendment rights are currently subject to censor[ship],” the flyers state.

The students convened around 7:00 a.m., and Stone estimated that seven individuals participated at various points, though all but three had left for class by the time two officers from the Auburn Police Department, which handles policing for the university, approached and asked to see their permit. When the group responded that they did not have a permit, the officers temporarily departed, returning shortly thereafter with an administrator in tow.

Video footage obtained by Campus Reform shows the group’s ensuing conversation with Debbie Hood, who handles outdoor space reservations for the AU Student Center.

“You're supposed to have a permit anytime you're out on the concourse,” she tells them after confirming that they had not requested permission through the AU Involve online portal. “It takes about 48 hours, and then you can be out here on Monday if you want to. I’ll have to ask you to leave today.”

Gesturing to the surrounding area, she explains that “you know, like, all these other people went through AU Involve, and we can’t really have y’all be out here and not go through the same process. OK?”

“So, we’re just out here talking about free speech,” Stone responds, seeking clarification of the policy. “Are you telling me we have to have a permit to come out here and exercise the right to free speech?”

“Right now, that is the policy of Auburn University—that everyone has to have a permit,” Hood affirms.

“At what point does just talking on campus turn into something you need a permit for?” interjects Brett Hanson, another member of the assemblage.

“It’s not really talking; it’s being out on the concourse itself,” Hood replies matter-of-factly. “Any student organization that wants to be out on the concourse has to have a permit to do so.”

Hood declined to comment on the altercation, instead directing Campus Reform to the university’s Speech and Demonstration Policy, which outlines the requirements for all forms of public expression on campus, including activities undertaken by registered student organizations.

The policy mandates that “demonstrations, speeches, and debates are to be held in the Open Air Forum (located on the steps of the Ralph Brown Draughon Library)” unless an alternate location is deemed appropriate by the Division of Student Affairs, and specifies that “special authorization must be secured no less than 48 hours in advance of such activity.”

Confusingly, the policy also states that “To avoid monopolization by any person, agency, or organization, and to best accommodate all users, permits to schedule the use of the Open Air Forum are available in the Division of Student Affairs’ Student Center Operations Monday – Friday, from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM.”

Stone told Campus Reform that the students grudgingly complied with the directive when it became clear that the university would not relent, but insisted that YAL will continue to push for the repeal of speech policies it considers unconstitutional.

“They told us to leave, and considering they had three police officers and an administrator, we didn’t resist,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to cause a stink or anything; we just wanted to make sure the school is aware of our complaints.”

To that end, Stone said YAL would continue to circulate its petition, which will eventually be presented to the administration. Noting that the group managed to collect more than 60 signatures in the limited time before being evicted, though, he indicated that they now expect to easily surpass their original goal of 100 signatures, and are simply aiming to secure “as many as possible” before taking their case to the university.

“We filled up close to four pages, and we’re still working on it,” he boasted, adding, “I want to go out there and do this again, with or without a permit, because we really want these policies repealed.”

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