The dismantling of the approximately 400 crosses outside the Fine Arts Building holds implications for free speech at Northern Kentucky University. The crosses were a display by Northern Right to Life, a new student organization.
While university officials have said vandalism is neither tolerated nor sanctioned by the university, they have yet to address some important issues.
Designated vs. limited forum
First of all, the display was approved as an exercise of free speech in a limited public forum with reference to the NKU Administrative Regulations Section II-5.0.4. However, the forum has not been official labeled by university officials as a designated or limited public forum. This distinction is crucial.
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, a designated public forum is an area that has been expressly reserved by the state to allow the public to engage in open expression. Designated public forums are available for use by any group or individual, and any restrictions on speech in these areas must be heavily scrutinized to avoid censorship.
However, in a limited public forum, speech can be restricted based on reasonable time, place, and manner issues, though these restrictions should never be content- or viewpoint-based.
For instance, you can’t get on a bullhorn in a rally at a time or place that might interfere with teaching in the classroom.
This would be a disturbance worthy of censorship because it is counter to the university’s pedagogical goals.
On the other hand, not allowing a group to speak because their viewpoint is disliked would be a violation of freedom of speech in a limited public forum.
The university’s take
In addition to federal and state regulation regarding public forums, the university imposes additional restrictions for on-campus limited public forums. To conduct or enact any act of expression on NKU’s limited public forums, which the grassy hill supposedly was, the event or display must be approved. As well, only registered student organizations, official alumni groups, or faculty/staff (for extracurricular activities) can demonstrate in these areas. Individuals of the campus community and many others might not qualify for this access.
Normally, this would not be a problem, because other groups and individuals would be permitted to use the designated public forum area to express their viewpoints. However, the designated public forum is “located at the northwest end of the University Center facing Parking Lot A and partially bounded on the north side by Nunn Drive,” according to Section II-5.0.4.
Sound familiar? The only designated, unrestricted public forum on campus happens to be under construction. So where can individuals express their freedom of speech? In the light of this distinction, it is crucial that the university informs the students and campus community about where they can speak!
Not everyone is a member of a registered student group, so other students need to be able to be heard. By removing the only designated public forum on campus, and not equally informing the student body about these changes, the university is going counter to its stance on free speech.
We need a place to speak and be heard. In light of this controversy, it is essential that we maintain a free and open discourse. But without a place to speak free of restrictions, how is it free speech?