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Protesters stage a sit-in in Baker Center on Feb. 1, 2017.

University's protest policy is unpopular, but likely constitutional

Ohio University’s new interim “Freedom of Expression” policy is proving unpopular with both liberal and conservative students.

Though the presidents of the OU College Republicans and OU College Democrats disagree on many issues, they both oppose the interim policy, which forbids “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies” from the inside of university buildings. They see the policy as an unnecessary infringement on freedom of speech and assembly.

“I think that’s kind of a bipartisan fight,” Ryan Evans, the president of the OU College Republicans, said referring to the disagreement on the policy. “There are definitely people on the left who want to protest … and that should be absolutely fine, like I said, as long as it doesn’t impede other people’s rights.”

The interim policy, which the university announced Friday, allows students to reserve outdoor space on campus. It also allows students to reserve indoor spaces such as classrooms for “discussions and other forms of constitutionally protected speech,” but otherwise bans protests and similar events inside. Another interim policy provides detailed guidelines governing the use of 26 outdoor spaces on campus.

In an email statement Tuesday, OU Spokesman Dan Pittman said the interim freedom of expression policy is only a temporary measure the university took in response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. The university will consider reactions from students and faculty when it drafts a final policy.

"In the meantime, some of the initial feedback we received has raised the question that the policy constrains political speech," the statement reads. "That is not our intent. Our policy must balance safety with protection of all constitutionally protected speech, regardless of content."

Evans and other members of his organization have been talking about the interim policy only for a short time, but he thinks most of the College Republicans are against it. He plans to discuss a course of action with his organization.

As long as protests do not infringe upon the rights of others, Evans said the university should not interfere. He believes intervention is appropriate in some cases.

“Say you have a speech and people are standing in front of a door where you can’t get into the building,” Evans said. “Or they’re purposefully going into the building and causing a big disruption and you can’t listen to the speaker or something like that. That should be stopped.”

But Evans believes those decisions should be individual security measures, not broad rules and regulations against indoor protests.

Ashley Fishwick, the president of the OU College Democrats, said the interim policy was “not acceptable.” She said the policy restricting indoor protests would especially affect students in the winter months. The “Baker 70” protest during which 70 protesters were arrested in Baker Center, for example, took place in February.

“It’s going to be hard, especially because most students aren’t going to want to go stand outside in like 30 degree weather, and they shouldn’t have to,” she said. “They should have access to any space in the university, because essentially, like, we’re paying for it.”

The university should protect the right of students to protest, she said, not restrict it.

Azhar Majeed, vice president of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he does not see any “first amendment issues” with the policy, and it would likely receive a “green light” rating from his organization.

“The important thing for us is that it certainly opens up the campus as a whole to expressive activity as long as students are not being disruptive and not threatening order and safety,” he said.

Overall, OU holds a “yellow light” rating from FIRE. That means the university has at least one policy vague enough to permit restrictions to constitutionally-protected expression. OU’s only “yellow light” policy is its computer and network use policy. FIRE has given the rest of OU’s expression-related policies the “green light.”

Majeed said the freedom of expression policy is not perfect — he would prefer the universities make some allowances for demonstrations inside buildings. 

But the university is within its rights to place limitations on indoor spaces, he said. Indoor spaces are smaller, and people within them might be trying to work or get to class, making building interiors less well-suited to demonstrations.

“It’s not necessarily the exact policy that we would write, but we try not to let perfect be the enemy of good,” he said.


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