University of California – Davis (UC-Davis) police made national headlines last year when they pepper sprayed Occupy movement student protesters on the school’s campus. Nineteen students and alumni subsequently filed a federal lawsuit in February, which claimed that the university violated their free-speech and assembly rights.
Now a settlement is requiring the university to pay nearly $1 million to settle these claims, which includes $30,000 to each of the 21 affected students, USA TODAY reported this week.
In this Nov. 18, 2011 file photo, University of California – Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC-Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school’s quad in Davis, Calif. The University of California has agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by demonstrators who were pepper sprayed in the face during an Occupy protest.
But the incident at UC-Davis and its implications raise a greater question: What are common restrictions to students’ free-speech rights on college campuses, and when are these limits justified?
In fact, several schools across the country have experienced controversies surrounding free-speech restrictions in the past few years.
But among the most common forms of limited free speech at U.S. schools is the designation of free-speech zones, where students are granted freedom of speech in a designated area of campus, said William Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit organization that aims to protect freedom of speech at U.S. colleges and universities.
Often, Creeley said, students must register in advance to use these areas.
For instance, under the University of Cincinnati’s former free-speech policy, students were able to exercise their rights to “demonstrate, picket or rally” only in a specific “Free Speech Area” near the corner of campus.
But, the school’s Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a pro-liberty student organization, protested the school’s actions and ultimately filed a lawsuit against the school.
“The First Amendment is really important, and we were tired of having our speech limited,” said Ian Gulley, a University of Cincinnati junior and current YAL president. “We wanted to do something about it.”
The purpose of the zone, though, was to ensure that individuals or groups that don’t meet certain criteria, such as being a school-sponsored organization, could still openly express their opinions, UC spokesman Greg Hand told The News Record.
Still, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black issued a permanent injunction in August, which led to the official removal of the “Free Speech Area.”
In addition to the implementation of free-speech zones, Creeley cited “civility policies,” or policies that require civil discussion on certain topics, as an example of widespread free-speech restriction at U.S. schools.
At the University of Western Michigan in 2008, an alumnus challenged the school’s ban on “sexism” in a letter to the school’s president.
“There are many things clearly wrong with any such attempt to police personal viewpoint, from many perspectives,” the letter stated. The school’s president responded immediately, agreeing to change the policy.
While the YAL students at Cincinnati and the Western Michigan alumnus emerged victorious in their pursuits, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, specified that policies regarding freedom of expression differ at public versus private universities.
“Your relationship with the private university is like your relationship with any other company,” LoMonte said. “If you don’t like their policies, you can stop doing business with them. A private campus is subject to shutting down conversations on campus.”
Yale University’s policy, for example, states that scheduled student protests are permitted so long as they “do not prevent the orderly conduct of a University function or activity.”
Many private schools do provide students with “voluntarily protection” of free speech, LoMonte said.
Sometimes, though, the determination of whether an issue is indeed one of “free speech” is up for debate.
Like UC-Davis, events at Emory University sparked controversy in spring 2011, when the Emory Police Department arrested seven student protesters from the campus Quadrangle. The students, who were members of Students and Workers in Solidarity, were protesting the alleged mistreatment of workers for Sodexo, Emory’s food vendor, The Emory Wheel reported.
University administrators cited a “long-standing policy [that] clearly prohibits the unauthorized use of the Quadrangle for such purposes” as their reason for the arrests, according to an Emory statement.
The students, though, believed that they were arrested for the content of their speech rather than criminal trespass. Egan Short, one of the students involved in the 2011 protests, said the administration was attempting to “silence [the protesters’] voices.”
As controversies over free-speech limits at colleges continue, LoMonte advises students to stay informed of private schools’ specific policies when enrolling.
“When you’re choosing a school, you ought to ask to see those policies and be comfortable living under them,” he said.
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