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Peaceful campus protest sheds light on restrictions to First Amendment
*Editor’s note: The story was updated last at 5 p.m. on Feb. 5 to include information about Southeast guidelines on free expression.
Do you know your First Amendment rights?
Do you know that until 2015 they only applied to five specific areas on the Southeast main campus, called “free-speech zones?”
The Southeast chapter of Young Americans for Liberty held a peaceful protest in front of Kent Library on Feb. 2 to shed light on the issue behind zoning a constitutional right on campus.
Alexander Staudt, the director of free speech for YAL’s national office said the issue of free-speech zones is systemic in university and college campuses all over the country. Protests like the one at Southeast, he added, are designed to demonstrate how ineffective university free-speech policies are.
YAL operates as a chapter-based organization with a presence on 900 college campuses across the country, Staudt said.
As the director of free speech, Staudt works from the YAL headquarters in northern Virginia and works with schools all over the country on “problematic” institutional speech codes.
“We’ve got a whole database of schools that have some kind of infraction on the First Amendment or another, and I educate our students on why these things are wrong,” Staudt said. “It usually doesn’t take too much because they are big First Amendment people.”
He also oversees the YAL National Fight for Free Speech, which is a program that helps college students challenge university policies that restrict their First Amendment on campus and campaign to get those policies overturned.
“As a result, we’ve reformed policies at 31 schools and restored rights to nearly 650,000 students,” Staudt said.
Until August of 2015, Southeast wasn’t one of those schools.
Former Gov. Jay Nixon signed the Missouri Campus Free Expression Act into law on Aug. 28 of 2015 as a measure to stop colleges and universities from restricting areas where students can protest. The law came after several student protests took place on campus following the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
The few areas where free-speech zones existed on Southeast’s campus prior to the law, Staudt said, were the terraces outside Academic Hall, the fountain area and green space in front of Kent Library, the quadrangle and the south side of Scully Building, as well as the hillside on the southeast corner of the seminary buildings at the River Campus.
Since the new state legislation went into effect, Southeast developed ‘Freedom of Expression Guidelines’ which explain the university's policy on all forms of free expression.
Associate Vice President for Student Life at Southeast Bruce Skinner said the guidelines were designed to help facilitate free expression for students, faculty, staff and other members of the university community in a way that does not disrupt the university’s academic mission.
Skinner went on to say that he prefers a model like the one Southeast has now over the free-speech zones that existed prior to the 2015 legislation.
“If you’re going to limit something, particularly something as precious as speech, you need to be able to well defend it,” Skinner said.
While Southeast has moved toward the encouragement of free speech, many other public institutions across the country have not. The YAL is an organization dedicated to changing that.
“[Restoring First Amendment rights is] an issue that we’ve gotten pretty good at challenging and winning,” Staudt said.
An example of the “challenging” Staudt mentioned began last year at Pierce College in Los Angeles. After being told he could only hand out pocket Constitutions on a specific part of his campus (a free speech zone), a Pierce College student filed a lawsuit against the school for the restriction of his First Amendment rights to free speech.
Staudt said just .003 percent of the 464-acre Los Angeles campus is made up of free speech zones. The lawsuit caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times as well as the U.S. Justice Department.
As first reported by the Los Angeles Times, “the requirement that students give administrators their names and organizational affiliations before engaging in free speech,” the filing said ‘effectively bans all spontaneous speech.’
Staudt was quick to acknowledge the administration’s role in the restriction of free speech.
“There’s a common trend across college campuses that the administrators have some kind of right to legislate and regulate above and beyond the First Amendment to the Constitution,” Staudt said.
The restoration of rights, Staudt said, begins with one conversation and continues with respect, empathy and understanding.
“What’s really missing right now is that civil discourse and a real understanding of how the other side thinks,” Staudt said. “Without having empathy or at least a baseline understanding of why people think the way they do, then this is how we get ignorance and bigotry on both sides of the aisle.”
Staudt said peaceful protests are a great way to begin that conversation.
“The value of peaceful protests is incalculable, quite honestly,” Staudt said. “There’s no benefit in getting in screaming matches with people over policy issues or going on 10-paragraph arguments on Facebook...none of those things are productive for either side.”
The YAL protest in front of Kent Library may not be about protecting the rights of Missouri students, but these free-speech zones still exist at colleges all over the country.