Expert says freedoms, rights the same on campus as off

October 15, 2015 Latest, News Print Print
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campusrightsquote0Most people, if asked the difference between student rights and civil rights, would need a moment to process the question.

That’s because there are those who believe there are restrictions to their rights once they are on OCCC property, a state college funded by taxpayers.

That isn’t correct, said Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Legal and Public Advocacy Vice President Will Creeley.

Creeley said American college campuses have been identified as a “marketplace of ideas” by the U.S. Supreme Court, yet numerous lawsuits are filed yearly against colleges that try to restrict the rights of their students.

FIRE’s mission is described on its website as “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity.

“FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.”

Creeley said one student right repeatedly being violated across the U.S. is the right to free speech. He said often, campuses wrongly believe they can establish free speech areas or zones.

“Free speech zones take a variety of forms, but what FIRE means when we say free speech zones are small, often out-of-the-way areas designated by administrators as the places where students can speak their minds.”

He said FIRE believes such zones to be unconstitutional because they restrict the right to free speech.

Any open area, where citizens can pass freely at any time, should be able to be used by any citizen at any time, without permission, Creeley said. Areas that may not fall in this category might be a classroom or a boardroom, for instance.

Student Life Assistant Director Kendra Fringer said OCCC doesn’t have a free speech zone.

“I am aware a lot of four-year institutions and other places have specified zones,” she said.

“We do not have that here as far as specific areas you need to stand to express yourself. We support free speech here on campus.”

In fact, Fringer said, any student can have a table or space to practice their freedom of speech whether they are with a designated club or department.

However, Fringer added, those not affiliated with the college would need to clear it through college officials first.

“Individuals do have the opportunity to ask for space on campus,” she said. “It would be the same way an outside company would have to ask because they’re not affiliated with a club or department.

“If they know they want to do something we ask for two weeks to facilitate that because it helps us better assist them in finding space.”

Fringer said Student Life asks for two weeks notice to help them get materials that are requested and to make sure the space is available.

“If they have an idea today and they want to do it tomorrow, we can try our best but there’s no guarantee they would have the space they would like [or] they would have the materials they wanted.

“The two weeks just helps us facilitate and get them what they’re wanting,” she said.

“If we put in the request and find out that space is not available, it gives us time to find alternatives. That two-week time period helps us make sure we have leeway if something was to occur or space wasn’t available.”

Fringer said Student Life is just the facilitating point who can help fill any requests submitted.

“The office of Student Life does not control all the spaces on campus,” she said.

“We are not the guardians of the space, so depending on if it’s a location that we have the availability to request would determine whether or not the person could have the space.

“That goes for all the places on campus. We’re just the facilitating point that starts to help to ask for those requests.”

However, Creeley said, having to register to use an open area on a public campus is yet another way administrators act unconstitutionally when dealing with free speech.

“We’ve seen registration periods as far as 10 or 15 days in advance,” he said.

“If you have to register to speak your mind 10 days out, you won’t be able to act spontaneously to the news of the day, and that’s a problem as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

“If you impose these kind of restrictions on people’s access to that marketplace, you impoverish the ability of folks to learn from each other via dialogue which is what universities are supposed to facilitate.”

Creeley said public campuses such as OCCC should be treated as public forums where students should be able to speak to each other all over campus about the issues that they care about.

“Too often we see very bureaucratic barriers to students expressing their minds in a timely fashion — whether that’s being relegated or, should I say, quarantined, to the free speech zone or having to notify an administrator two weeks in advance or having to fill out special permission forms just to be able to hand out literature to your fellow students,” he said.

“Those kinds of restrictions are really overkill and we don’t think those are the kind of reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that universities may impose to regulate speech on a public college campus.”

Creeley said at times administrators can impose reasonable viewpoint and content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on student speech as long as they give ample alternative means of communication and they’re narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.

“For instance, it would violate the First Amendment if the college said only students who are wishing to discuss a certain viewpoint or express certain viewpoints can use the area.

“But there’s no significant government interest being served by requiring students (to wait) two weeks before they speak their minds,” he said.

“There’s no significant government interest being served by restricting speech on campus to just one tiny area out of a big block of public property. That’s not narrowly tailored.

“That doesn’t leave students with ample alternative means of communication. So that’s why we think those kinds of policies are unconstitutional and so far courts have agreed.”

Creeley said there is a distinction between free speech and disruptive speech.

“To be clear, when you’re in class you have agreed to be graded. You don’t have the First Amendment right to stand up in class and disrupt class,” he said. “That is clear. But when you are on campus you have the First Amendment right to speak your mind. Any kind of restriction on that would be suspect.”

Creeley said FIRE also is aware of some colleges telling their students they are not allowed to partake in certain activities such as campaign activity on campus. He said that that is the college misreading the law.

“As long as the students don’t claim to be speaking on behalf of the universities and the university gives equal opportunity to both parties, then students can show public support of their candidate of choice or their party,” he said.

Fringer said students can go to Student Life for help if they feel their rights have been violated.

“I personally haven’t seen a big issue with it, but the only way we know is if students tell us. If it’s occurring and nobody is telling us, then we can’t help,” she said.

“A lot of the time, from my understanding and my experience, it’s just that people don’t always understand the process.

“It’s not the fact that [the college doesn’t] want the students to participate or be active, they just don’t understand the process, or what is OK and what is not OK. They are just misinformed.”

Creeley said the majority of FIRE’s cases involve free speech but Creeley said they also help students with other basic civil liberties and equality rights such as right to due process, freedom of conscience, religious liberty and freedom of the press.

He gave a few more examples of rights everyone has.

“Your school cannot make you promise to vote a certain way,” he said. “They cannot make you salute the flag if you don’t want to.

“Your mind is your own and you have the right to determine for yourself how you feel about those issues and many others.

“If you are accused of violating the student code of conduct and you are in line for potential punishment, you have the right at the very least to (receive) notice of what you’ve done, what rule you’ve allegedly violated and the right to a hearing of some kind to be able to make your case, to explain your side of the story. That’s at the bare minimum.”

Creeley said FIRE is there for students who feel their rights have been violated.

“FIRE is a proudly non-partisan, non-profit organization and we mainly work on free speech issues,” he said.

“We’ve been around since 1999 and defeated hundreds of unconstitutional or illiberal restrictions on student’s and faculty speech at campuses nationwide.

“We are always standing by. We are there to help defend those rights on campus. We are always happy to talk to students who feel their rights have been violated.

“Public university students do not lose any First Amendment rights. You don’t check your First Amendment rights at the door when you come onto a public campus. You have the same rights as when you’re a student when you are not a student.”

For more information, contact FIRE at thefire.org or Student Life at studentlife@occc.edu.

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