Colleges: We don't want to limit student speech, demonstrations

Court case puts spotlight on how, where students can rally

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March 28, 2014 | 4:13 pm

Campus policies that cover where students can gather for rallies or demonstrations vary among Iowa’s public universities and several other Eastern Iowa colleges, but officials with those schools say a recent Iowa-based lawsuit on the issue won’t prompt changes for them.

The lawsuit, filed in April by a student at Des Moines Area Community College, challenged a policy that required students to distribute materials from a “speech zone” in the student center and to get permission 10 days in advance. The suit argued the policy unconstitutionally prohibited students from speaking in reaction to current events on the open spaces of the campus. DMACC officials said they would stop enforcing that policy, and the case was settled.

Officials with Iowa’s three public universities and with several other colleges said the issues raised in that case won’t impact their policies about student usage of campus spaces, because their policies don’t contain the same restrictions.

“We want to see students taking interest in politics and social issues, so we try to make that as easy for them as possible,” said Tom Rocklin, vice president for student life at the University of Iowa.

Rules vary

The UI, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, Kirkwood Community College, Coe College and Cornell College all said they do not require prior approval of any fliers or literature students want to distribute on campus. And while the schools said they don’t limit where students can gather or hold demonstrations, some of the colleges do require advance notice for student use of specific high-demand spaces or campus areas.

The aim of those policies is not to limit free speech, the officials said, but rather to manage conflicting use of a space if more than one group wants to use it.

A number of colleges nationally have revised so-called “free speech zone” policies in recent years, in response to challenges. A recent study by a watchdog group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, reported that 62 percent of the more than 400 universities and colleges reviewed have policies that violate students’ rights to free speech, including Iowa’s public universities. The study pointed to “free speech zones” or required advanced notification for usage as common policies that hamper student speech.

ISU’s policy has two high-traffic areas of campus as “designated public forums” that can be used on a first-come, first-served basis. If students want to hold a “public forum activity” — an event where more than 50 people are expected — in other outdoor campus space, they must give advance notice. ISU officials said that’s to minimize conflicting uses of space.

Having the two designated areas for any non-commercial use directs students to high-profile spots on campus, said ISU attorney Paul Tanaka.

“The idea is that that’s the classic community square where there’s a lot of traffic, and if people want to get a crowd, that would be the place to do it,” he said.

UI policies

The UI does not designate free speech zones, but use of a few popular campus spots, including the Pentacrest, requires advance reservation, Rocklin said. Reservation is only required when a group plans or advertises an event in advance. “Casual use,” something that’s not advertised ahead of time, is generally permitted anywhere so long as it doesn’t disturb normal university functions or damage property, he said.

“We only manage it to avoid multiple groups wanting to use the same outdoor space, not for the content of the message,” Rocklin said.

ISU and UI officials said they don’t track how often students notify them or apply for use of campus spaces, but it typically happens several times every week. It’s unusual for an event to be denied, officials said, and that would typically happen because of another event in that space.

DMACC officials are still working on the specifics of their new policy, but it will separate use by students versus use of space for commercial solicitations, President Rob Denson said. The old policy — the one that required 10 days notice and approval — was aimed at commercial solicitations but unintentionally applied to students as well, he said, and this was the first time a complaint arose.

When he was made aware of the 10-day rule, Denson said, that policy was immediately stopped because “as soon as I saw it, I knew it was not reasonable.”

The new policy will have no waiting period for free speech gatherings or literature by students, Denson said.

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