Opinion | Proposed protest policy protects free speech


Abe Baali

A large crowd of people congregate in front of Alma Mater passing out May 22 after a University students dead name was used during a commencement ceremony. Columnist Matthew Krauter argues that the University’s proposed protest policy will harbor free speech compatible with education.

By Matthew Krauter, Senior Columnist

The amendments to the U.S. Constitution are not ordered by importance — a concept that should be evident by the right to not quarter a militia in your home preceding the right to due process. However, countless would agree the First Amendment is the most fundamental to our republic.

An America without the freedom of speech would be unrecognizable, as would the Land of Lincoln. Yet, “freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction,” and we ought to seriously consider the implications of restrictions upon speech. It is with that vigilant approach, that the proposed “Expressive Activity on Campus Policy” by the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Operations has raised concerns.

The new policy is justly motivated by a desire to ensure that expressive activities on campus are both safe and compatible with university operations: Protests have to be lawful and they cannot threaten or cause injury or damages — noncontroversial standards.

Eyebrows have been raised, nonetheless, by the remaining rules prohibiting substantial and material disruption with university activities, obstruction of access to buildings or impeding movement, conflicts with reservations, restrictions on usage of the area surrounding the Alma Mater and disruptive noise. Some students have argued that protests are meant to be disruptive and these rules are too burdensome on free speech.

A brief summary of First Amendment rights in schools and current campus policy might illuminate whether these worries are substantiated.

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In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court found that students retain their First Amendment rights on campus, and schools must be able to prove student conduct would materially and substantially interfere with school operations to restrict it.

Nevertheless, the retained right to free speech is not absolute. In Cox v. New Hampshire, the court decided that while the content of speech cannot be regulated, the time, place and manner it is exercised can be for the sake of order and safety.

Building upon the Tinker test of prohibiting material disruption of schools, in Grayned v. City of Rockford the court opined anti-noise policies were not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad.

Finally, in Ward v. Rock Against Racism the court affirmed the constitutionality of anti-noise policies and clarified the test for time, place and manner restrictions for free speech. The policies must be content-neutral, narrowly tailored, serve a significant government interest and leave alternative channels for communication.

Turning back to the University’s policies, the proposed changes are intended to replace the longstanding “Campus Demonstrations and Protests Policy” and the “Quadrangle Noise Policy.” The former prohibits disruption of university operations and the latter requires reasonable sound moderation.

The proposed policy’s prohibition of protests interfering with the University is a longstanding campus policy supported by Tinker. The ban on obstructing building access, pedestrians and traffic similarly relate to university operations and lawfulness.

Restrictions on protests in reserved spaces, like around Alma Mater when the University has reserved it for events such as graduation pictures, and the ban of disruptive noise are a valid exercise of the time, place and manner restrictions defined by the Court.

Protests can occur in places other than proximate to Alma Mater and communicate their cause effectively without distracting freshmen taking Calculus quizzes in the Henry Administration Building.

While these policies appear to be constitutional limitations on free speech, some clarity on the precise prohibited behavior would be beneficial.

For instance, would a large group of protestors standing on the sidewalk violate the policy against obstructing pedestrian traffic if the size of their group takes up the width of the sidewalk, forcing passersby to walk in the grass? This offense hardly seems analogous to purposefully obstructing building exits, yet it seems they would suffer the same penalties.

While I’m always hesitant to approve of restricting speech, the University has tailored these policies to harbor free speech compatible with education. These policy changes seem appropriate given the tumultuous political climate, the common hijacking of Alma Mater for political purposes and my personal experience with campus protests disrupting others’ reserved spaces. If the Vice Chancellor clarifies details and considers the feedback, the policy should be welcomed by the community.


Matthew is a senior in LAS.

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