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Protesters hold banners during the open forum on the interim 'Freedom of Expression' policy in Baker Ballroom on March 21. (FILE)

OU released new ‘Freedom of Expression’ policies. But some still have concerns.

Correction appended.

Just near the Civil War monument, along a walkway on College Green, a bronze plaque sits embedded within the bricks. Titled “Student Voices,” the plaque proclaims the green as “a forum for the voice of Ohio University students” throughout the university’s history. 

“Whether supporting civil rights, advocating for the abolishment of women’s curfews, or in protest, students have and will continue to play a vital role in shaping Ohio University,” it reads. 

Under the university’s newly proposed policies governing free expression and use of space, however, several places on campus are not designated as spaces that can be used for protest.

The newly proposed policies are the latest in a yearlong saga that has pitted university administration against those who believe there should be no restriction on free expression.   

After months of feedback and deliberation, OU’s Executive Staff Policy Committee announced a new set of proposed policies April 12.

Administrators’ policy decisions about expression have largely defined the past year, prompting a fierce debate over the freedom to voice dissent at OU.

The newly proposed policies 

After months of feedback and numerous calls for administrators to rescind the policy, the Executive Staff Policy Committee, which is composed of the three vice presidents and General Counsel John Biancamano, created a new set of guidelines for protesting and gathering in areas on campus. 

J. Bennett Guess, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the new proposed policies are significant improvements from the previous policies.

“It appears that under these policies, members of the OU community will be able to express themselves robustly and meaningfully in many spaces on the campus, both outdoors and indoors,” Guess said in an email. 

The ACLU of Ohio, however, remains concerned about the availability of indoor public spaces for students to “gather and use their voices.”

In both indoor and outdoor proposed policies, if expression “substantially and materially” interferes with or disrupts university activity, it is not permitted. 

Associate General Counsel Grant Garber said the spaces designated in the new policies are “fairly centrally located,” and he emphasized students’ ability to reserve spaces. 

Spontaneous demonstrations are allowed in Baker Center atrium spaces, empty classrooms, reservable conference rooms and meeting rooms in Baker Center when participants “are permitted to be present.”

Demonstrations would be prohibited in certain indoor spaces, including hallways and lobbies in academic and administrative buildings, such as Cutler Hall and the Baker Center rotunda. Both spaces have been used for sit-ins in recent years. And in both instances, the OU Police Department advised demonstrators they could either leave or risk arrest.

Under the new proposed policies, OUPD would have the final authority in “resolving issues of public safety,” while academic and administrative managers will be responsible for determining whether an activity is disruptive.

Garber stressed that the policy does not ban indoor demonstrations and said “it really does the opposite.”

Only in extraordinary circumstances would “appropriate university leadership” be able to grant special exceptions to provisions of the policies. Those exemptions cannot be based on the content, message or viewpoints of the activities in question. 

“There shouldn’t be any reserved spaces,” Courtney Robinson, a senior studying psychology, said. “It’s like they’re taking away freedom of speech.”

‘The campus has spoken unanimously’

Conversations surrounding the policies began in September, when OU President Duane Nellis, just three months into his term, signed two interim policies governing the use of space for demonstrations.

That was seven months after 70 people were arrested during a Baker Center protest against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Trespassing charges were eventually dropped against the demonstrators after a judge determined the Baker Center rotunda was a designated public forum.

Biancamano drafted the interim policies in July, and Nellis approved them in August. The interim policies banned “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies” inside university buildings, but stated that space may be reserved indoors for “constitutionally protected speech” and activities. 

The university also revised its outdoor spaces policy to set restrictions on various factors, such as how long spaces can be reserved and how much noise is permitted. 

When first released in the fall, the interim policies were met with sharp criticism.

On Oct. 20, more than 100 students and faculty members took to the steps of the Athens County Courthouse to protest the policies. They marched on the sidewalks around the perimeter of campus.

“We are here for something much greater than freedom of speech,” Ziad Abu-Rish, an assistant professor of history, told the crowd. “We are not alone — the campus has spoken unanimously.” 

The demonstrators called for the resignation of several prominent administrators, including Nellis, as well as a complete rescindication of the interim policies. 

Also in October, the ACLU of Ohio called the interim policies unconstitutional. 

Ten days after the protest, Nellis announced a special advisory committee tasked with reviewing public feedback and creating a list of recommendations for a final policy. The committee was composed of members of each university senate, as well as faculty and staff members. The policy group met behind closed doors, drawing criticism from the ACLU of Ohio.

The Executive Staff Policy Committee ultimately formed the new proposed policies on indoor and outdoor spaces after the special advisory committee spent months reviewing considerations and feedback. 

Nerissa Young, a journalism lecturer and adviser to the OU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said she doesn’t believe the advisory committee’s recommendations did anything to promote free speech on campus, adding that the policies are in contrast to Nellis’ reputation at his previous institutions. 

“(Nellis) has an opportunity to turn this down,” Young said. “I believe, personally, that the wheels were in motion when he got here, and he’s in a different spot of having to (go) against the upper-level administration.”

Young said if the university goes through with the more recent policy proposals, she believes there is a “very good chance” that someone will file a lawsuit, “and OU will lose if that happens.”

What’s next 

Garber said the next step is for the proposed policies to be sent to “different constituencies” on campus for feedback.

Nearly one year after the interim “Freedom of Expression” policies were established, the five senates on campus are beginning to produce feedback for the Executive Staff Policy Committee. 

During Faculty Senate’s special meeting April 16, which was held to discuss the newly proposed policies, faculty members voiced concern. 

At the meeting, Garber explained that the newest set of proposed policies are designed to be legally sound.  

“We have tried, from a legal perspective, to draft a policy that would be upheld by a court,” Garber said. 

Some believe, however, that the university does not have a need for the policies. 

“I’d really like to hear some rationale beyond waving the protests elsewhere that are dangerous and could come here too,” Faculty Senator Bernhard Debatin said. “Do we really have a need? Is there an actual need other than highly preventive thinking? Is there an actual need for a policy on that?”

Young also said she had concerns about the purpose of the policies. 

“My concern is the policies approach this from a negative standpoint instead of a positive standpoint,” she said. “We have yet to hear a purpose and a need from the administration.”



Correction: A previous version of the headline on this report incorrectly stated the status of the policies. This report also misstated which locations are not available for protest. The headline and article have been updated to reflect the most accurate information.

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