Signs of trouble for free speech at Sinclair CC

Peter Bonilla Director, FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program
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On June 8, more than 160 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies were held nationwide to protest recent mandates regarding contraceptive and abortion-related healthcare coverage from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One of the rallies was held at Sinclair Community College (SCC) in Dayton, Ohio, hosted by SCC’s Traditional Values Club. You’d have been forgiven, however, if you had walked past the rally and had difficulty figuring out what everyone was talking about. Why? Because SCC’s police department ordered everyone to put every single sign down on the ground.

Photos taken at the event show police forcing rally attendees to put down their signs, and in this video you can hear an officer saying that “no signage whatsoever” was allowed:

This grossly unconstitutional censorship by SCC has prompted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) to step in. SCC’s wholesale prohibition of signs at the rally mocks the very idea of a college campus being a “marketplace of ideas,” and defies the wisdom of the Supreme Court in in Healy v. James (1972), which famously stated that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

The story gets worse: According to The Clarion, SCC’s campus paper, the college has banned signs throughout the campus since 1990, justifying its position through a wildly expansive reading of its Campus Access Policy. Properly applied, the policy would enable SCC community members to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech without disrupting the educational or administrative functions of the college. SCC’s police, however, have taken the policy — which does not even mention signs — much further than that. Indeed, they’ve used it to justify a preemptive, across-the-board ban on all signage on the off-chance it might prove disruptive.

So, just as the police misinterpreted the policy to censor the expression of those at the TVC event, the police also seem to have used it to violate the free speech rights of two students who had brought homemade posters to silently protest at an earlier TVC event. At least the police are violating everybody’s rights on both sides of TVC’s agenda.

This should make clear that free speech is not a partisan issue. How many more students, faculty, and student groups have had their voices silenced? If SCC really has been enforcing such a ban since 1990, one can only wonder how high the number must be.

Of course, this silencing is entirely unacceptable, far exceeding SCC’s legitimate ability to regulate campus expression. As the Supreme Court made clear in Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989), reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions on freedom of expression must be “narrowly tailored” to “serve a significant governmental interest” and must “leave open ample alternative channels for communication.” There is nothing reasonable, however, about SCC’s across-the-board restriction on signs, and the general concern for order is not a compelling interest for this kind of restriction.

In effect, the police’s longstanding interpretation of SCC’s policy permanently condemns student speech to having less protection on campus than it would enjoy in the community at large, turning on its head decades of Supreme Court precedent.

By SCC’s logic, just as the attendees of the Stand Up for Religious Freedom rally were prevented from holding their signs in support, students on campus will be prohibited from proudly wielding campaign signs supporting (or opposing) Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential election. The preposterousness of such a position should be readily apparent to SCC. That a public college hasn’t figured this out is cause for grave concern.

Peter Bonilla is the assistant director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE.