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1996 Memo on Administration Efforts
to Restrict Speech on Campus

1996 Memo on Administration Efforts to Restrict Speech on Campus




Dennis Fox, LES


March 5, 1996


Impending University Policy on Restricting Speech

Although I am on sabbatical mostly focusing my attention elsewhere, I want to make sure you know about impending limitations on campus speech. The Senate's Freedom of Expression Committee will finalize its proposed policy on March 14 (11:30, in PAC 350). In my view, even if the well-intentioned committee significantly improves its current draft, any policy the Administration approves will allow administrators to restrict speech to an unacceptable degree. I fear the final policy will slip through at the end of the semester, when dirty deeds around here frequently take place unnoticed.

For 25 years, Sangamon State University had a reasonable de facto policy on speech and expression: Members of the community could engage in peaceful and legal speech activities in a nondisruptive manner. True, administrators occasionally prevented distribution of material they found objectionable. But they usually rescinded that interference when we protested, and we could live with the few exceptions.

Now the Administration wants to change that. They want the right to prevent dissemination of information. And they want to say they are allowed to do so by a policy devised by faculty, staff, and students themselves.

The problem with all generally worded speech policies is that there's always room for too much discretion. For example: the policy draft allows complete prevention of leafleting and petitioning in places like hallways, the library, and the cafeteria: "The responsible University official in charge of the space is vested with the discretion to determine whether the collateral speech activity is unduly disrupting the primary use of the space." Those of us who have seen the cafeteria manager order his workers to remove union leaflets from the tables have little confidence in managerial perspectives on what is "unduly disruptive."

The policy's "strong presumption in favor of free speech" has no teeth.

For example, in "non-public forums" such as a campus auditorium rented out for "private" activities, the Administration can decide that free speech is not "appropriate for the area" and can be "curtailed by the discretion of the responsible University official with the assistance of the campus police if necessary." The policy provides no appeals procedure for improper discretion. The continued lack of on-campus procedures for complaints about the police makes the call for police action especially worrisome.

An alternative to a generally worded speech policy is devising specific rules. This makes things clearer, for better or worse. But the Administration has already tried this approach&emdash;for worse. Fortunately, the Union and Senate blocked that effort, which revealed the Administration's real views about speech:

At last year's final Faculty Senate meeting, Doug Anderson distributed Naomi Lynn's Administrative Policies Bulletin No. 42, dated May 12, 1995. The detailed "Time, Manner, and Place Rules for Speech Activities" clarified the Administration's view of "inappropriate"activities: Passing around petitions in the library or cafeteria. Putting leaflets on car windshields in the parking lots. Handing out leaflets closer than 15 feet to an auditorium or classroom doorway. Students could no longer distribute leaflets or petitions in classrooms. You get the idea.

If you never heard of this Bulletin, that's because it never went into effect. The Union objected immediately. Lynn then postponed implementation for six weeks pending Union and Senate feedback. When the Union and Senate continued to object throughout the summer, Lynn let the repressive regulations wither away, deciding to wait instead for the report of the Senate-appointed Freedom of Expression Committee.

That report is now almost ready. The Administration gets what it wanted: Rhetoric about the importance of free speech, written by strong first amendment advocates. And an inevitably vague policy that lets the Administration restrict speech at will.

There's a better alternative. We can retain the de facto policy we've had for 26 years: Freedom to distribute material is paramount. When they think we're breaking the law, they can arrest us. That policy has served us pretty well. Given the Administration's clear interest in restricting speech, as revealed by Bulletin No. 42, our traditional approach is the acceptable approach. (It would also help if the Administration told us whether they've finally gotten around to teaching the police how to operate in a college setting, as they promised.)

If the Administration wants to use the police to prevent leafleting, petitioning, and standing silently with a poster, let them do so unilaterally. Let's not enable them to say they're only implementing a policy that we wrote.



The administration apparently let its proposal wither away.

Small victories are better than none.

However: the administration still blocks distribution of material when it wants to.

We apparently have little recourse.

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