Free speech protected on campus

Northern Kentucky University, as a state institution, has the obligation to allow free speech all over campus – with certain restrictions.

One of the ways that free speech on campus can be restricted is if it disrupts the educational process, according to Dean of Students Kent Kelso. “If an individual walks into a class and is spouting off, that would disrupt education,” he said.

However, individuals wishing to assert their views are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights where they wish. Kelso said that if a student wants to stand out in front of Nunn Hall and hand out flyers, they are free to do so.

Even when speech is controversial, it is still protected. “If students want to set up a booth in the University Center and hand out material that says that George W. Bush is a big idiot, they can,” said Kimberly Vance, assistant director of Student Life. “We have to be considerate of the fact that students have the right to express themselves,” she said.

There are some considerations involved in allowing rallies and demonstrations to take place, though. “If it’s a rally, they have to get our permission first,” said Kelso. “If it’s a highly emotionally charged situation, it has to be done in a way that protects the community,” he said.

Kelso said that if a student organization were to have a rally that would disrupt the educational process, the university would step in.

“That is the only time that an attempt is made to control the situation. Students then have to send a request to the dean of students office and we will suggest where to have it,” he said.

Kelso said that in instances when the university would step in to regulate speech, there is a time, place and manner test given. What that means is that the speech is not regulated according to content, but by the manner in which it is given. Telling someone that they cannot give a speech because of what they are saying is unconstitutional. Speech can be regulated by manner, though. That is how the university can tell students that they cannot give a speech at a certain time or place.

Disrupting the educational process isn’t just when someone comes into class and physically commands the attention away from the professor. It can be something as simple as impeding other student’s entry into a building for class.

Hate speech is a different matter in the eyes of many, but according to the Constitution, hate speech is protected. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”

But some NKU students feel like hate speech should be regulated by the university.

“I think I would be very disturbed if I saw hate speech on campus,” said sophomore nursing major Heather Long. “There’s a fine line between respect and free speech.”

Public administration graduate student Tiffany Whalen feels like if the speech is too offensive then it should be regulated, but went on to say, “You never want to not allow a person’s constitutional right to speech.”

Whalen feels like hate speech promotes negativity, and says that she wouldn’t prefer to hear it, but “free speech is important.”

Senior information systems student Chris Capek disagreed with both. “I don’t like it, but it’s their right,” he said. “It’s my choice whether or not to listen to it.”

Capek didn’t feel like the university had any right to regulate or censor speech on campus. “It’s our right to free speech,” he said.

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a famous case from 1969 that set precedent, the Supreme Court ruling was that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Writing the opinion of the Court, Justice Fortas said, “…in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression…Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk.”