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Texas lawmakers consider curbing use of campus speech zones

By The Associated Press

Editor’s note: HB 2447 was placed on the Texas Legislature General State Calendar in May 2003. No further action was taken.

The sophomore creative writing student applied time and again to hold forums — on censorship, on lead, arsenic and children and even one event comparing campus administration to Saddam Hussein — at the student union at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Time and again, he was denied. The student union wasn't in one of the two "free- speech zones" on campus.

After months of tangling with administrators and a net of bureaucratic application procedures required to give a speech, Ruben Reyes sued the school's administrators and the University of Texas System Board of Regents for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights.

His battle, one of many at universities across the state, caught the attention of state lawmakers, who are pushing a bill through the Texas Legislature intended to cut down on the use of designated speech zones and other limits universities place on free-speech rights.

"Unfortunately, Texas universities are not meeting their obligation to provide a free learning environment for students," said bill author Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso. "This bill ensures that universities provide students with a chance to express their ideas without fear of being arrested or disciplined unfairly."

The concept of so-called "free-speech zones" caught like wildfire at colleges and universities across the country over the past two decades. Universities argue the zones facilitate orderly expression. Students say such zones stifle debate by limiting access and by allowing administrators, often the dean of students, to make the final decision on what speech gets heard.

Reserving the zones, which may be required weeks before the event, is also problematic, students say, because it's often impossible to demonstrate over timely events.

Resistance at other Texas schools
Students at UTEP aren't the only ones bucking free-speech regulations.

University of Texas students successfully challenged the school's policy of allowing demonstrations only in certain areas. Since February, the entire campus has been open to speeches and demonstrations.

Students at the University of Houston said their lawsuit had the opposite effect.

The Pro-Life Cougars student organization won their first legal battle last fall when a judge ordered the group be allowed to display graphic pictures of dead fetuses in one of the university's main thoroughfares. UH originally refused to allow the display outside of four designated free-speech zones.

But the anti-abortion group sued again shortly afterward, claiming that a new UH policy, which limited speech to only four designated zones, was more unconstitutional than the previous one.

"Thirty-five thousand people and there's these four small areas and that's it," said law student and Pro-Life Cougars chairman Jonathan Saenz. "It sent the message to the students that your speech isn't that important. We can put you in an area over here and you're just going to have to deal with that.

"It's contrary to what a lot of people think the college experience is about — challenging what you believe and what others believe."

A fifth speech area is available to students without reservations, but picketing, displays and sound equipment are prohibited.

UH spokesman Mike Cinelli says the new policy is constitutional because universities have a legal right to regulate time, place and manner of speech.

"The idea that this campus is not open to free speech is just not accurate," Cinelli said, but he added that universities have the right to limit demonstrations or displays that could "disrupt the academic mission of the university."

Students claim intimidation tactics used
At UTEP, students say administrators have used intimidation tactics such as summoning campus police to supervise demonstrations and threatening administrative action against students who push the limits on speech.

"What they use is this phrase: 'Would you like to endanger your relationship with the university?'" said Reyes, a politically active student who is running for city council in El Paso. "They are becoming more strict, more draconian with their limitations."

UTEP Dean of Students William D. Schafer, named in the lawsuit, did not return repeated requests for comment by the Associated Press. A university spokeswoman said administrators could not comment on pending litigation although Schafer was quoted in the El Paso Times in March shortly after the lawsuit was filed saying the university supports "the free exchange of information and expression."

Some legal experts and activists say the concept of speech zones is simply unconstitutional.

"The free-speech zone runs from Maine to Hawaii," said Doug Laycock, the veteran law professor who chaired UT's free-speech task force. "What free-speech zones mean to me is that in the zone you have free speech and everywhere else you're subject to censorship. That's an absurd proposition and we got rid of that at the University of Texas."

Sidney Buchanan, a law professor at the University of Houston for 36 years, argues that speech zones are not unconstitutional if they are administered fairly. He said universities are not regarded as a traditional public forum and therefore speech isn't as protected as it would be in public streets, sidewalks and parks.

But, he said, universities can drift into unconstitutional territory if they let the content — such as pictures of aborted fetuses — dictate who has access to certain areas.

Texas lawmakers weigh issue
The bill in the Texas Legislature seeks to crack down on speech zones by simply stating that limits on speech can't be any more restrictive than what's necessary to protect normal school activities.

Right now, Laycock said restrictions such as speech zones are born of "an instinct to avoid taking risks and avoid thinking through hard problems," rather than necessity. He said he wasn't sure a new law would change things.

"It doesn't answer any of the hard questions. If you ask the people in Houston, they would say they're in compliance. They would say (the rules) are necessary. I think their rules are idiotic but somebody's got to argue that on the ground of each campus."

Collin Bost, a former president of Students for the American Civil Liberties Union chapter at UT who spearheaded the legislative effort, said HB 2447 is broad for a reason.

"We didn't want to make something so strict that it's sort of micromanaging from the Legislature," he said. "It will protect universities if they try to follow this standard. They won't get sued all the time."

Others, such as Thor Halvorssen, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, say a state law would do little more than echo the federal law universities already should be following.

"There's no need for any legislation whatsoever to protect free speech considering there is a U.S. Constitution and a Bill of Rights," he said.

For Reyes, the legislation provides hope that things will change at UTEP. But in the meantime, he'll keep trying to stir up his own change, one application at a time.


Student, anti-abortion group sue Texas college

Lawsuit claims University of Houston violated students' First Amendment rights by restricting location of graphic display. 02.05.02

Texas students sue university over free-speech rules

Lawsuit claims policy requiring students to get permits for speeches, deliver them in designated areas violates the First Amendment. 03.10.03

Group challenges Pennsylvania college's speech codes
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says lawsuit against Shippensburg University is first of many it plans to file across the country. 04.24.03

Campus abolishes its free-speech zone
Western Illinois University rescinds policy after silent protest by about 30 students, faculty. 05.09.03

Civil liberties groups seek to topple Texas Tech's free-speech policy
Law student sues over university's limits on protest locations, also challenges school's speech code. 06.13.03

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