Students Question Free Speech Policy

By Pamela Bond

North Texas Daily

Nov. 15, 2006

Students protesting the free speech policy on October 10 peacefully disbanded on the condition that they would have a personal meeting with Dean of Students Kenneth Ballom, who broke up the protest with the help of NT police.

That meeting took place the following week. Ballom, Associate Dean Ona Tolliver, the Gay and Lesbian Association of Denton, National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and Young Conservatives of Texas all met to discuss some changes to the policy.

“It was a very productive meeting where they presented a proposal and we discussed various issues related to policies,” said Ballom, “I assured them [the student protest group] that when the process of review begins at some point their input and
involvement would definitely be encouraged and I would call upon them when the time arrives.”

District Judge Samuel Cummings ruled in favor of Texas Tech University student Jason Roberts in September 2004, stating that Tech’s free speech policies were “unconstitutional.” Robert’s request to protest the sinfulness of homosexuality outside the free speech forum was denied by the Center for Campus Life.

At the time, the center stated they denied the request, not in an effort to regulate free speech, but to avoid construction near the student union building.

Nonetheless, Tech’s free speech policy was revoked after the ruling, and a new one was implemented in time for the current school year.

“Expression can take place anywhere as long as it doesn’t impede on normal day-to-day operations,” said Ethan Logan, associate director of Tech’s Center for Campus Life. “Your expression is protected as long as it doesn’t infringe on anybody else’s right.”

Now, Tech has more free speech areas in more prominent parts of the campus and they allow all forms of constitutionally protected speech. In the previous version, both unconstitutional parts of speech (defamation, obscenity and fighting words) and “insults,” “ridicule” and “personal attacks” were prohibited

“We basically have free expression areas,” Logan said. “We don’t censure, but we do restrict the space. That is designed in place to protect the institution. We haven’t had any problems at this point.”

The policy has been rewritten to accommodate the recent court ruling, which also required Tech to “more narrowly” describe its restrictions on free speech.

“I think it’s something in any public school university that free speech is a right that the
students are given,” said Ryan Worley, external vice president for Tech’s student government association. “I think it’s important to recognize that right—we are granted that right. At the same time, I think it’s important to work with your administration, and that’s what the students realized at Tech.”

Tech’s current policy is now similar to NT’s, and they both define the purpose of the free speech area and its uses in similar terms. However, while Tech’s policy is considered a step in the right direction, NT students are not necessarily satisfied with theirs.

“We feel like a lot of policies are unfair,” said Sarah Burnett, Marshall junior and vice president of GLAD. “Also, the regulations now say that you have to stay in the free speech area, and people have to come in the free speech area…and that policy is a little unfair. It’s not that we want to harass people, but a lot of times people don’t feel comfortable approaching the table, and we want to be able to approach people in a friendly way.”
While NT’s policy did not have many of the problems Tech’s did, since it had more prominent free speech areas and it did not forbid constitutionally protected speech, it is still undergoing a system-wide review by the legal department and the student development office. A revised copy of the free speech policy will probably be presented in the spring.

Most colleges and universities in Texas have had free speech policies since the 1980’s. They were first intended to organize and expand student’s rights by establishing an outlet for student voices.

Today, they mainly serve to protect the university’s first order of business: education. Since NT is a public institution, the government has the right to regulate time and manner in order to maintain peace and function.

Therefore, the designated free speech areas serve to keep demonstrations from disrupting classes, maintenance and other parts of the university’s daily business. If protests were allowed anywhere, such as inside buildings, it would be considered a breach of peace and would compromise the institution’s primary function.

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