Judge Strikes Limits on College Student Activism

     CINCINNATI (CN) – The University of Cincinnati must change its unconstitutional policies against campus demonstrations and petitioning, a federal judge ruled.
     The UC Chapter of Young Americans for Liberty filed suit after the school refused to let members roam across campus to collect signatures for a 2012 ballot issue.
     Citing policy, the university instead stuck the group in “the Free Speech Area [which] is less than one tenth the size of a football field,” and told them “if any signature gathering were to occur anywhere else on campus, the students would be subject to arrest,” according to the Southern District of Ohio’s summary of the case.
     But complying with the rule meant that petitioners interacted with just six students in one day.
     U.S. District Judge Timothy Black issued a partial injunction last week against campus rules that require groups to receive prior notification before collecting petition signatures, to wait 15 days before conducting any demonstrations and to confine any demonstrations to the tiny and remote Free Speech Area.
     The 19-page decision notes that the Free Speech Area makes up 0.01 percent of the campus. Though it is a public forum open for use by students, the Main Street area of campus is also a public forum, Black found.
     “The defendants’ view would allow the university to restrict the speech of all students to limited topics, subject only to a reasonableness review,” he wrote. “Such a theory is anathema to the nature of a university, which is ‘peculiarly the marketplace of ideas’ and runs contrary to the Supreme Court’s holding that ‘the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.'”
     Black also took issue with UC’s prior notice constraints, which require up to a 15-day notice before groups can hold any demonstration, picket or petitioning.
     “The mere fact that the notice requirement applies to all student speech raises constitutional concerns,” the decision states (emphasis in original).
     “‘It is offensive – not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society – that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so,'” Black added, quoting Supreme Court precedent. “Such expansive permitting schemes place an objective burden on the exercise of free speech. Further, they essentially ban spontaneous speech.”
     Though the university said prior notice ensures the peace and safety of students and the campus at large, Black pointed out that the policy does “not restrict its regulation to large demonstrations, or those using sound amplification, or any number of justifiable criteria.”
     “Rather, the university paints with a broad brush to encompass all speech that may be classified as a ‘demonstration, picket or rally’ and has failed to narrowly tailor its policy,” the decision states.
     The injunction prevents the University of Cincinnati from requiring petitioners to obtain prior notification and nixes the waiting period. Students can now collect signatures in campus outdoor areas and sidewalks, as well as the Free Speech Area.

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