Thursday, January 8, 2009

SIU Speech Zone: What's Right? What's Wrong?

When students were away on break, SIU Chancellor Sam Goldman received a letter from F.I.R.E. challenging the university's "designated public forum areas" (labeled "Free Speech Facilities" in the handbook for Registered Student Organizations). ACLU-Southern Illinois, and the Illinois affiliate of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) cosigned the letter from FIRE.

As I noted at the time, this issue erupted in 2004 when an anti-war group protested outside the then-designated speech zone. The administration acted swiftly by forming a committee and then issuing a revised policy entitled "Demonstrations: Regulations and Procedures."

There is a lot of good in that demonstrations policy but one major flaw: the presence of special zones for speech. Here is my rundown of the good and bad:


1. The demonstrations policy approved by the Board of Trustees begins with a strong statement in support of academic freedom.

2. The section "Standards of Respect and Civility" offers common-sense guidelines for protests, demonstrations and other individual or group speech on campus. Don't block traffic, don't disrupt classes, don't break the law: Golden Rule 101.

3. The Designated Public Forum Areas are in high-traffic areas (but see below).


1. "Events within Designated Public Forum Areas": designate implies that this is a special area set aside for "free expression." Only one group may be present at a time. There are two areas designated for demonstrations: adjoining the parking garage and parking lots near Anthony Hall; and in front of Morris Library. WHY is "free expression" given a "designated" area? What can one do outside those zones?

2. "Events Outside of Designated Public Forum Areas": The previous section setting aside "free expression" areas conflicts with the short section allowing events outside of designated areas. The natural question: why have a designated area at all? The "events outside" section ought to be applied to all the public plazas and walkways of the campus. Simply put, the "Standards of Respect and Civility" govern speech in these outside areas. So, once again, why have a designated area that leads students and others to think that there -- and only there -- they may protest or demonstrate?

3. The RSO Handbook (see pp. 25-26): RSO's are among the groups most likely to speak out on campus. That is why the handbook language is so troubling:

a. The Orwellian phrase "Free Speech Facilities" is substituted for Designated Public Forum Area.

b. The handbook lists only one of the two designated areas listed in the Board of Trustee policy.

c. "Other campus areas will not be used as open forums." This conflicts with the Board policy of allowing individuals or groups to assemble outside designated areas.
If all of this is clear as mud, you are right. But the simple question is "why have a forum at all?" Is SIU-C for or against "events outside" the designated areas?


Abolish the zone and all will be well. The "Standards of Respect and Civility" are enough.
There is no need for a forum area, particularly since

a) SIU-C cannot make up its mind about speech outside that area; and

b) limiting demonstrations to a "zone" makes SIU vulnerable to a lawsuit.

SIU-C has a good policy -- if it abolishes the zone. Let's hope that this is resolved in good faith without the usual circus surrounding any challenge to standing policy. I believe the administration wants to do the right thing. But, if it does not, it will certainly face a challenge from FIRE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that the zone should be abolished completely. By the way, I am curious as to how SIUC is going to address this issue, will it be in the normal SIUC way? which is to arrogantly continue an unconstitutional policy until they lose in court.

LeNie Adolphson