Other Campuses: University weighs free speech policy in wake of court decision

By University Daily

(U-WIRE) LUBBOCK, Texas – Texas Tech University has been forced to question its adherence to the First Amendment.

Administrators and the Office of the General Counsel have been laboring to re-word Texas Tech’s campus-wide free speech policy as it is stated in the 2004-2005 Student Handbook.

Efforts to rework the policy are in light of a Sept. 30, 2004, ruling by U.S. District Judge Samuel Cummings that the policy is unconstitutional. As it previously stood, the policy requires students to ask permission before making speeches outside designated free speech areas and limits the places where free speech can be exercised.

The ruling was the result of a 2003 lawsuit in which Tech law student Jason W. Roberts sued the university for violating his First Amendment rights when his request to express views on the sinfulness of homosexuality outside a designated campus forum area was denied by the Center for Campus Life. At the time, Tech’s designated free-speech forum was the 20-foot wide gazebo located northwest of the Student Union building, and those wishing to speak outside the gazebo were required to submit requests to use grounds outside the gazebo at least six working days prior to the day of use.

The denial came via e-mail from the Center for Campus Life and asked Roberts to move into the gazebo to express his views. Ethan Logan, unit director of the Center for Campus Life, said the denial was not an attempt to regulate content but an issue of avoiding construction near the Student Union at the time.

Although Tech’s 2004-2005 Student Handbook now lists six free speech areas, Cummings’ ruling requires the university to “more narrowly” define its limitations on free speech, according to a Winter 2004-05 Student Press Law Center Report.

According to the SPLC report, designating free speech forums has been a trend among the nation’s universities since the 1980s. The report states that school officials prefer to allow certain space to students and the occasional non-student to exercise their First Amendment rights however they wish, without disrupting the educational environment. Those who choose to speak outside the designated areas without permission could be asked to move their speech elsewhere.

– Angela Timmons

Texas Tech law professor Daniel Benson said the university likely was not attempting to restrict anyone’s free speech, but asking for any significant assembly to be either contained in one of the listed forums or otherwise be granted prior approval for the other grounds. Benson said with Tech being a public forum, government can always regulate time and manner so there is not a significant breach of the peace.

For instance, holding a rally in the University Library would impede upon the functions of the university; or the assembly of a large group of people could potentially be hazardous to the safety of those on campus. Other than that, Benson said, Cummings wants Texas Tech’s campus to be wide open for people to exercise free speech.

“Cummings said there are public forum areas on campus, streets, sidewalks,” Benson said. “They can’t restrict free speech; they can’t provide less.”

According to the SPLC report, Tech’s policy at the time Roberts was asking to use a non-forum area prohibited “insults,” “ridicule” and “personal attacks.” However, Benson said the Constitution only protects Americans from defamation, obscenity or fighting words — not from being offended.

Logan said the university has attempted to maintain the institutions’ academic mission — an academic environment in which teaching and being taught are not threatened by disruptions.

Tech considered designated free speech areas an “expansion” of individuals’ First Amendment rights by encouraging students to use designated areas for free speech, Logan said.

“We’ve never restricted content, and that’s the essence of freedom of expression,” Logan said. “We’re happy to have them express themselves and hope they (students and faculty) know the institution is not trying to restrict them. The university is for the free-flowing exchange of ideas.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Shonrock said the university is now operating without a policy, as it was revoked with Cummings’ ruling. Shonrock said the policy is being reviewed by the General Counsel’s office. Essentially, this allows the university to operate as it did before the court’s overruling of the policy — students may exercise free speech any place it does not pose an imminent threat.

“We want to ensure our new policies are absolutely, positively in compliance with Judge Cummings’ ruling,” Shonrock said.

The university will stick to its desire to keep protests or other forms of free speech from disrupting classrooms or traffic on campus.

“Common sense still prevails,” Shonrock said.

The Office of Student Affairs commissioned a survey by the Earl Survey Research Lab in spring 2004 to gauge students’ opinions on free speech. According to the results, 51.5 percent of students say they are aware of the policy, while almost 70 percent of respondents correctly identified one of the six free speech zones.

The university is committed to making the policy clear cut, Shonrock said, because it ultimately will impact not only Tech, but universities statewide as well.

While Logan said he anticipates the reworded policy to be completed by the next Board of Regents’ meeting on Feb. 24, Shonrock said he is unsure when the policy will be finished. Texas Tech’s Associate General Counsel Victor Mellinger said the policy should be done within the next few weeks.

Student Government Association President Mitchell Moses said the SGA has not been part of the policy’s re-wording, nor has there been much discussion among senators regarding the policy.

“The policy might see approval from the SGA, but I’m confident the General Counsel’s office and the (university) president will come up with something and go by the First Amendment,” Moses said.

Moses said his concern with freedom of expression lies with maintaining the university’s academic mission.

“It’s important that these (free speech) rights aren’t offensive to the learning environment, and it’s important academic buildings and student learning isn’t inhibited by that,” he said.

Moses said the student body at Texas Tech seems less prone to express themselves in public, and tends more to “roll with the punches,” adding that as far as major issues go, Tech students don’t react much to the change of the tide.

Benson said it is characteristic of Texans, and those in West Texas especially, to remain silent about controversial global issues, but he hopes Tech’s students and faculty understand their rights.

“Free speech is among the most precious rights we have in the Constitution,” he said. “It should be guarded and protected zealously against the slightest infringement.”