YAL students confronted while passing out Constitutions
Several University of Akron students affiliated with Young Americans for Liberty were confronted Sunday when they attempted to distribute literature on campus.
Anthony Palumbo, a first-year law student at the university, told Campus Reform that within about five minutes of the group beginning to set up pro-liberty and free-market themed signs, a university official arrived and ordered them to disperse.
The unnamed official identified herself only as "a university employee" in a cell phone video of the the incident that was provided to Campus Reform.
"Hello, I work at the university. Let me just give you the low down about what you're allowed to do when it comes to 'solicitation' on a college campus. This is a public space, but within our confines we are allowed to choose what can be here, and we do that through a process of applying to be in the public space," the employee said.
After the students conceded that they did not have a form giving them permission to hold their event on campus property, they were told, "there is a system through which you can absolutely do all of this. Absolutely. But you have to go through the university policy."
When asked if there is a reason that students should need permission to demonstrate on campus, the employee responded, "[y]es, there is. So, anybody from a student organization wants to be out on the ground...It's known as a reservation. They're not going to deny you, sir; I guarantee you."
The employee then proceeded to instruct the students on the process for an external organization to reserve space on campus, pointing out that, "[p]eople who hand out Bibles will be here on Tuesday. That organization, which is a long-time partner of the institution, is an external men's group, and they come in every year and fill out the form, and they stand at every entrance across campus and hand out Bibles."
Even though the YAL group was composed of University of Akron students, the employee told them they are still considered an external group because they are not a registered student organization.
"Okay, so you're still considered a group of people who are allowed to assemble on the University of Akron's campus," she said. "You just need to go through the normal process like everybody else."
"And we'll be a group today?" Palumbo asked.
"No, I'm sorry sir, you will not be a group today," she responded. "Up to three days."
"And that is the condition of us being out here?"
"Yes it is, sir."
"Even just to solicit contacts?" asked Abe Alassaf, the Leadership Institute's Midwest regional field coordinator, who was on hand to assist the students.
"You can't, I'm sorry; you're soliciting. I can show you the rule that says there's no solicitation on campus."
After conceding that she did not have the exact policy number at hand, the employee advises the students to visit the Board of Trustees' web site and search for the term "solicitation" under university rules. A search performed by Campus Reform per those instructions turned up three documents, all of which refer only to prohibitions on solicitation of funds by university employees.
"So what would be the consequence if we stay here?" Palumbo asked.
"I'm going to call the police and you're going to be charged with trespassing. That could happen, I'm not going to do that. I'm just giving you your rights. I need to go in there and do my due diligence today, but I'm giving you as much time as I can in the process," she replied.
Palumbo told the official that the group would go through the process, “but we will leave right now, under protest and duress."
Alassaf then interjected, "Just to be sure ma'am, so if we're out here just trying to practice our First Amendment rights and trying to get people to come to our group, we're in violation of ... we're not allowed to be doing this?"
"Within the First Amendment rights, also is to follow university policy," the employee said. "So I guarantee you if you tried to take up an audience at Wendy's, they're not going to let you, it's trespassing. In this instance, we have trespass laws that work for us, too."
"Even for students who go to this school, and it's a public university?" asked Thomas Hern, Ohio Field Director for Turning Point USA.
"Yes, it is. So, to organize, and to do an organized duty, that's what it takes."
A third student then joined the conversation:
"So for students who go here, at a public university paid for by the taxpayers, we're not allowed to be here?"
"In an organized fashion."
"So we're not allowed to organize? What if we were to split up as students who go here?"
"I'm not hearing it. Okay? I need to go do what I do, and if the police stop you and say what they need to say to you, you can do your thing," the employee said before returning inside.
Although the University of Akron does not seem to have an applicable policy regarding solicitation, it does have two other policies that the employee seemed to be attempting to enforce.
The school's policy on assembly procedures requires the sponsoring group or person of any assembly to register with the student organization resource center at least 48 hours prior to the event.
It also provides for disciplinary sanctions including "immediate suspension and/or arrest ... when such assemblies might be considered unruly or unlawful, or become disruptive of any university process or violative of any university regulation."
Similarly, the university's trespass regulations stipulate that assistance from law enforcement may be sought "when the president or the president's designee determines that a situation exists on the university of Akron campus which threatens the maintenance of law and order thereon or which impairs the pursuit of its educational objectives and programs in an orderly manner."
Palumbo told Campus Reform that the employee made no mention of the YAL group disrupting either law and order or the educational functions of the university.
"We had signs with various messages, and we were passing out Constitutions," he explained. "Our only purpose there was for our basic right of free speech in an area that was a public area. We had no intent to harm anyone and we were freely exercising our rights."
A similar incident occurred last year at another Ohio university, the University of Toledo, when campus police threatened to arrest protesters at a speech by Karl Rove.
In response, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to university president Nagi Naganathan asserting that, "[t]his arbitrary and discretionary censorship of student expression is unconstitutional," adding that, "[i]t is settled law that the First Amendment is fully binding on public universities."
In that case, the university eventually revised its policies, with FIRE's help, and now allows any person or group to exercise First Amendment rights on campus without prior notification.
Dan Minnich, Director of Media Relations for the University of Akron, told Campus Reform, “The official very clearly explains The University of Akron’s policy, and that groups are welcome to reserve a space on campus for their activities as long as they follow the process that has been in place for years.”
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