The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio issued a news release Monday criticizing Ohio University’s decision to hold meetings of its “Freedom of Expression” advisory committee behind closed doors. 

“We are extremely disappointed with the University’s decision to convene the advisory committee outside of the public eye,” ACLU of Ohio Executive Director J. Bennett Guess said in the news release. “This type of counterproductive, back-room secrecy is the antithesis of what the administration should be doing to foster trust and respect with the community.”

The 11-member advisory committee, which met for the first time Tuesday, was established in October by OU President Duane Nellis and interim Vice President and Provost David Descutner. The group is tasked with reviewing feedback on the university’s interim “Freedom of Expression” policy. 

Implemented in August, the policy effectively bans “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies," and allows the university to limit conduct that disrupts its operations, interferes with student activities or poses safety risks.

Following criticism during a public comment period, the university created the advisory committee to develop a set of set of principles that will guide future revisions. The group includes the chairs of the five OU senates, as well as OU Police Chief Andrew Powers and other university administrators.

Guess was on campus Tuesday to deliver a lecture at the Athena Cinema, and he spoke with students and members of the Center for Law, Justice and Culture earlier in the day. He said it was troubling for the ACLU to see a “blanket restriction” on free speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court, Guess said, has consistently ruled that there must be “highest regard” for First Amendment rights on college campuses. 

“You can appeal this to a higher power,” Guess said. “OU administration can say one thing, but the Supreme Court has long said something else. So there are potential legal challenges.”

When asked if the ACLU would take legal action against OU if the policies remain unchanged, Guess said “all options” are on the table. 

Scott Titsworth, who leads the Presidential Policy Advisory Group, released a statement Wednesday stating that transparency will be one of the “core values” of the committee. 

The committee decided future meetings will be closed to the public, with pre-scheduled media availability at the end of each meeting. 

“With unanimous consensus, the group decided meetings should continue to be held in private in order to accomplish the work at hand in an efficient manner and meet the expected delivery deadline for recommendations,” Titsworth wrote. “However, they will provide meeting minutes which will be posted online.”

In response to the ACLU’s October statement calling the policies unconstitutional, University Spokeswoman Carly Leatherwood said the university will “take their feedback into consideration,” despite disagreeing with parts of the statement. 

“While we disagree with some of the conclusions asserted by the ACLU of Ohio, we do agree on the fundamental importance of free expression on all Ohio University campuses,” Leatherwood said in a news release. “We will continue to engage the campus community through an advisory group that will review feedback and make recommendations regarding a final policy.”

@lauren__fisher

lf966614@ohio.edu

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