Western Carolina students challenge campus ‘free speech zones’
A Young Americans for Liberty group at Western Carolina University is protesting what it calls “free speech zones” on campus that the group says suppress First Amendment rights — but university officials deem the institution’s policies reasonable for the protection of its students, faculty, and staff.
Current WCU rules require that students maintain a 50-foot distance from all campus buildings during outdoor assemblies, and demand that groups notify school administrators 48 hours prior to any event so that “safety measures may be provided if necessary.”
The rules make it tough to find enough space for gatherings, and prevent students from spontaneously gathering to respond to current events, said Garrett Smith, the university’s YAL chapter president.
As part of a Sept. 17 Constitution Day protest, YAL members rolled a giant beach ball — which they called a “free speech ball” — around WCU’s campus, encouraging every student they met to write on it with sharpie pens.
Many undergraduates did so, with messages ranging from “Smile, you’re not dead yet,” to “Natives need more of a voice in America, to “Build that wall Trump 2016, to “F*** Trump 2016.”
YAL held 418 similar events across the country, with the goal of informing students about university speech codes and the violation of First Amendment rights on college campuses.
“Many college students are unaware that their campus has restrictive speech codes, but are appalled when they learn that their university has such codes,” said Alexander Staudt, director of free speech for YAL.
WCU’s speech rules are not as restrictive as those enforced by many other public universities, according to Kevin Koett, the school’s dean of students, who told the Smoky Mountain News that there wasn’t much to protest regarding free speech violations.
“I think there are some colleges and universities that have concerns and need to be challenged on some of the policies they have, but I would absolutely say Western is not one of those — and I do not say that lightly,” Koett said, pointing to safety and emergency preparedness as reasons to back the universities current rules for public assemblage.
Koett, who has worked at seven other institutions, said that “Western does more than any other institution that I’ve worked at to promote freedom of speech.”
YAL leaders disagree, however, saying that such university policies are excessive and must be dissolved.
“If a limitation on our First Amendment rights violates the Constitution, I do not believe it makes sense,” Staudt said. “At WCU the school places limitations on where students may peaceably assemble, a right guaranteed to us by our founding fathers.”
Follow this link if you’d like to learn more about the impact of “free speech zones” on UNC campuses.