Students who want to speak out about a political issue at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville have every right to do so — well, so long as they reserve a spot in the "Free Speech Zone" first.
Oh, and they have to give 48 hours notice. At that point, whether they get to use the zone, which is basically a twenty-foot radius around a big rock on the quadrangle, rests on whether the vice chancellor decides whether the university wants to honor their request.
And if he deems their subject matter controversial? Then they need to give 90 days' notice.
That's according to a lawsuit filed yesterday in the southern district of Illinois, alleging that the policies are a violation of students' right to free speech, as well as their right to due process. The lawsuit was filed by the Arizona-based Alliance for Defending Freedom on behalf of SIUE's College Republicans.
And if the advocacy group's success in challenging free speech zones on other campuses is any indication, SIUE could be in trouble. Senior counsel Tyson Langhofer says his organization has challenged more than 50 such zones across the country in the last decade — and has won ruling after ruling saying they are unconstitutional.
That said, he'd love to see SIUE simply amend its policy.
"If they fight it, we will fight it," he says. "We've been very successful in challenging them. But our goal is just to change the policy. Every group should have the right to speak freely on campus, no matter what their message may be."
Langhofer says SIUE was brought to its attention by the chapter of College Republicans on campus, who were having trouble getting their message out.
As the suit notes, the group wants to "advocate for their political opinions in reaction to current events when their message is most relevant." The university's 48-hour policy effectively acts as prior restraint on their ability to speak out.
Beyond that, Langhofer says, the "Free Speech Zone" is a tiny, tiny part of the campus. "It's 1,600 acres, with 14,000 some students," he says. "The College Republicans are saying this really restricts our activities when we have to stand within twenty feet of a rock."
The campus also has a solicitation policy that bars students from distributing materials without prior permission or soliciting membership in most areas of campus. That means even passing out fliers is forbidden, it says.
The university said it would have no comment on the litigation.
"The lawsuit has not been served on the university, so we have not had an opportunity to review it, and therefore cannot comment on the allegations," a spokeswoman says.
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