New policy stifles student speech


On Dec. 5, 2006, while students were preparing for exams and completing final projects, Northern Kentucky University proposed a new free speech policy. One, administrators claimed, that would “reaffirm and support the concepts of freedom of thought, conscience, inquiry, speech, and lawful assembly.”

It does no such thing.

Among its many new regulations, the most noticed change outlaws chalking. With no explanation or discussion, one of the rights most valued by many student groups, such as Common Ground and Northern Right to Life, is prohibited in the new policy.

And while the policy’s writers quote legal cases involving free speech, they seemed to forget to read the texts they cited. In Roberts v. Haragan, the court emphasized an older ruling that free speech limitations must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.”

An outright ban on chalking does not sound narrowly tailored. Nor are there ample alternative channels of communication. Chalked messages can quickly and easily be written anywhere on campus. It is a cheap method for students to express themselves without any risk of impeding the flow of traffic.

Considering that the proposal goes far out of its way to make sure pedestrians don’t have to, one must wonder why NKU seems so determined to remove such an innocuous conduit for communication.

Some students may use posters and fliers to get their message out. Any student can distribute posters, fliers, pamphlets and banners, according to the new policy. But what posters are exactly is never defined. The previous policy explained precisely what constituted a poster, handbill, flier and banner. But the new policy lumps them together, and then proceeds to include banners under both “posting” and “temporary displays.”

These temporary displays, which constitute “any object that results in a temporary visible change to a campus area,” could easily be construed to include posters, fliers and handbills, which can be removed if they aren’t stamped by the university center desk.

This hazy definition gives NKU’s administration the ability to classify anything as a temporary display. Sadly, one of the most important restrictions remains: Any display’s location must still be reserved through the Office of the Dean of Students.

Another such ambiguous rule states that protests cannot “alter the appearance or litter the area.” Any protest alters the appearance of an area. Simply by standing in the University Plaza, you alter the appearance of that area. This vague clause alone gives NKU administrators extensive power to halt any protest as they see fit. The dean of students can still, by himself, decide whether a group has violated the above regulation and “instruct the offending individuals or the assembled group to vacate the area.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warns colleges on its Web site that “allowing the dean of students to cancel an event at his discretion grants too much power to one individual and practically invites abuse, especially if guidelines for the exercise of this power are not included.”

Students have also lost their right to assemble indoors. Under the old policy, students could hold functions in university buildings. Granted, they had to obtain authorization, but at least they could demonstrate inside. With the new policy, students cannot have any rally indoors – period.

Outside, if a rally comprises more than 50 people, then university officials have the right to restrict the size and location of the protest. Previously, students had no such size restrictions for a demonstration.

While it is understandable for NKU to want to protect students, this does not justify other limitations, such as barring any rally inside buildings.

Also, most of the acceptable limits were already in the previous policy, such as censoring speech that disrupts classroom activities or protests barricading entrances to a building, and many of the new changes do not address the parts that needed to be improved.

Nevertheless, we are not saying that this policy was written to purposefully restrict students’ rights. We are NKU students and fans of free speech. We welcome the idea of revisiting the speech code to remove restrictions, but not rights. NKU should not eliminate students’ rights – to chalk, to protest indoors, to protest where we see fit in our public forum at our school.

The policy must be carefully examined and critiqued, something the NKU administration did not do. It pushed a policy concerning freedom of speech through the approval process. The policy was published right before exams, during a month when few students were on campus, and allowed only a few weeks for students to read and reflect on it. Now, the administration hopes to send this through the Board of Regents.

We at The Northerner condemn this restriction of our rights as students and Americans. We hope the Board of Regents will not approve this abridgement of our civil liberties.

Instead, we ask they reject this proposal and join with students, faculty, administrators and the NKU community to discuss a policy that ensures that no one’s rights be violated, and that all voices be heard.