University considers speech restrictions

Controversy has occasionally visited the Northern Kentucky University campus when uninvited speakers planted themselves somewhere on the university plaza and spouted off their ideas. Students have shouted back or made complaints. The university’s admissions office has even considered altering campus tour routes to move around them.

These “outside speakers,” as a proposed revision to a university policy has labeled them, have had few rules placed on them when they appeared on campus unannounced. However, the university is seeking to change that standard through the proposal. If passed, it would place several new restrictions on when and where unsolicited speakers can address the public at NKU.

Under the current policy, last updated in 1981, campus visitors are only required to “act responsibly” and avoid violating laws or other university policies. Additional restrictions apply if they are sponsored by a campus organization.

If the proposed change goes into effect, these speakers will no longer be allowed to come to campus unannounced. Instead, they will be required to submit an application to the Dean of Students at least five days in advance. The Dean of Students can then take up to three days to notify the speaker as to whether or not he or she is approved to speak on campus.

All decisions denying a speaker’s request must be “based on the [u]niversity’s time, place, and manner restrictions and its need to assess and provide appropriate security.”

The draft policy also requires the Dean of Students to “designate areas on campus where public speech and distribution of literature will be permitted for outside speakers unaffiliated with the university.”

According to Dean of Students Jeffrey Waple, who has endorsed the proposed changes, this part of the policy is not designed to create one certain area that will serve as the exclusive zone where outside speakers may address the public. Instead, it is designed to allow the dean to place outside speakers in a place where they have the least likelihood of disrupting university functions or academic classes.

“It’s not a manner of saying ‘this is the place,’” Jeffrey Waple, dean of students, explained about the proposal. “It’s a matter of if we know there’s something happening.”

He said that he would like to avoid having speakers in the plaza area between Founders Hall, Landrum Hall, and the W. Frank Steely Library because this tends to be a more “academic area.”

For some students, this is a welcomed change.

“We have to function as a campus,” said Kevin Golden, student body president and voting member of the university’s Board of Regents. “The policy is put into place to make sure there is some sort of decorum.”

Another restriction on unsponsored speakers is that while they may pass out literature, they are would no longer be allowed to leave any of their literature on campus once they leave. The policy would also limit uninvited speakers from using motorized vehicles in the plaza without prior authorization.

The proposed revisions to the policy also offer a new protection to unsponsored, off-campus speakers. In the event that they may “engender a strong or hostile response,” the university will provide security but will not accept liability if that security fails.

Some students welcome the change because they find the speech shared by these visitors unacceptable or worthy of a “strong response.” These students say they are tired of being belittled and demeaned by people claiming to know the truth and find many of their messages offensive.

“I don’t think the question is how often students are offended by the outside speakers, but how offended students become,” Justin Dial, an NKU student, said. “Everyone understands that people have opinions that differ from theirs, but it is when someone feels that they are being attacked or their beliefs belittled that people begin to respond negatively.”

Dial, who serves in student government, said he feels the changed policy would provide the appropriate balance and help to better set the tone for campus discussion of controversial issues.

“I do like the ideas behind this new policy, in that each speaker must check-in with administrators to allow us to know of their presence,” Dial said. “It’s creating a stronger and more respectful bond between the two parties, administration and guests.”

When free speech issues arise, students and outsiders often begin to question whether NKU, as a state university, might be overstepping its constitutional bounds.

John Valauri, a professor of law who has taught courses on constitutional law and law and religion at NKU’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law, gave his assessment of the draft policy’s lawfulness.

“Most of the university is a non-public forum,” Valauri said, meaning that it is allowed to place restrictions on the timing, location, and organization of speaking events. “The policy appears to be constitutional to me.”

Nonetheless, when people perceive their free speech rights have been taken away, they may decide to take legal action, even if their case is unlikely to prevail.

“You never know for sure, but I don’t think that a challenge is likely,” he said.

Waple said his office will not engage in restrictions based on the content of an applicant’s intended speech.

“They will be allowed the opportunity for free speech; we’re not going to hinder it,” Waple said. “We have to follow the law …. We don’t want to be the content police.”

The dean said his office will intervene only in cases where speech is obscene or the literature violates another policy. He said he is comfortable with his office taking on this challenge and that for the most part his office has been dealing with outside speakers already and they have voluntarily notified his office of their visits.

The policy is on track to go to a vote at the March 16 Board of Regents meeting.

Golden, who represents students on the governing board, said he plans to endorse the policy at the meeting and vote for its approval.

NKU’s Office of Legal Affairs, which Waple said drafted the policy, refused to comment publicly about the proposed changes until the Board of Regents votes on the measure.

Click here to read the current policy on off campus speakers

Click here to read the proposed policy on off campus speakers

Story by Jesse Call