‘Right to work’ students sue University of Cincinnati over ‘Free Speech Area’

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Zero point one percent. Out of the 8,506,833 square feet (approximately 137 acres) of its West Campus, the University of Cincinnati (UC), a public university, has decided that students may exercise their rights to “demonstrate, picket, or rally” on a small scrap of land that constitutes 0.1 percent of the campus. If they dare to exercise these basic rights outside of that “Free Speech Area,” they will be reported to the campus police and charged with trespassing.

Oh, and students cannot even indulge in free expression on this scrap of land unless they file an official request with the administration at least 10 working days (thus, 14 calendar days — barring any holidays, of course) before their demonstration or rally takes place.

On Wednesday, the UC chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) filed suit against the University of Cincinnati in federal district court, alleging that these requirements violate the First Amendment. As a public, taxpayer-supported institution, UC is obligated to respect the First Amendment rights of its students. While a public university may impose narrowly tailored, reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on student speech, no rational person could argue that limiting constitutionally protected speech to 0.1 percent of campus and imposing a 14-calendar-day waiting period for the use of that 0.1 percent is either narrow or reasonable.

YAL and its president, Christopher Morbitzer, ran afoul of UC’s speech restrictions on February 9, when they sought permission to gather signatures and talk to fellow students across campus in support of a statewide “right to work” ballot initiative. YAL stressed that time was of the essence for its advocacy; to qualify for inclusion on the ballot in November, supporters of the amendment must gather over 385,000 valid signatures by July 9.

UC denied YAL’s request, instead assigning the group to the “Free Speech Area,” and Morbitzer was told that if any YAL members were seen seeking support for the ballot initiative while “walk[ing] around campus,” they would be reported to campus police. This was especially odd considering that the students had in earlier months witnessed signature gatherers supporting casino gambling wandering all over the place.

The student lawsuit, filed by Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and Ohio lawyer Curt Hartman in cooperation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), asks for a temporary restraining order to prevent UC from restricting the group’s advocacy to this tiny portion of campus. It also challenges the constitutionality of the policy’s location and prior notice requirements.

A quick look at the history of demonstrations and protests in the United States reveals why restrictive policies like the one at UC are unconstitutional. Imagine telling mourners in the days following 9/11 that they had to submit administrative notice and wait 10 working days before they could hold a candlelight vigil to grieve for the dead. Further imagine that they could only hold that vigil in a tiny, abandoned parking lot several miles away from the site of the tragedy. I would wager that not a single police officer would agree to enforce that restriction.

Quarantining unpopular ideas has become increasingly common at America’s colleges and universities. Speech that might stir up a whiff of controversy is condemned to languish before a committee for an arbitrary number of days. If it even remains timely once it is grudgingly approved, the speech is relegated to a small, often out-of-the way portion of campus where it is less likely to attract the attention of students who might disagree with it. After all, restricting free expression is often far simpler than dealing with students who are offended by the mere existence of ideas that clash with their own.

Fortunately, free speech zones like the one at UC have been found unconstitutional in FIRE-coordinated lawsuits or abandoned under pressure from FIRE on campuses across the country, including at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, West Virginia University, the University of Nevada at Reno, Citrus College in California, Valdosta State University in Georgia, and Texas Tech University. Let’s hope that this is the last lawsuit that will be necessary before colleges across America wake up and realize that censoring their students with your tax money simply can’t be justified in our free society.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).