A federal court in Ohio has struck down a speech zone and advanced notice requirement at the University of Cincinnati. UC restricted any student speech classified as “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to a small speech zone on campus, which, according to FIRE, consisted of only “0.1% of the university’s 137-acre West Campus.” Compounding the problem, UC did not define “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies,” giving administrators unlimited discretion to apply it to any type of student speech–even friends engaged in heated conversations. UC also required students to get permission to use the speech zone 5 to 10 days in advance. Anyone who violated the policy could be charged with trespassing.
In one of the better student free speech decisions in a long time, the court opens its decision by declaring:
As a threshold matter, and as the Supreme Court of the United States has clearly stated: “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.” Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc’y of NY, Inc. v. Vill. of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 165-66 (2002).
It then declared that the outdoor, open areas of campus were presumptively designated public fora for student free speech. That designation — something that university administrators nationwide strive to avoid — gives students the greatest First Amendment protection on campus. The court reached this result by relying on ADF’s recent win at Tennessee Technical University.
UC argued that it may impose any restriction on student speech, so long as they are reasonable. The court said “[s]uch a theory is an 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.’” Again, the court reached this conclusion by citing an ADF case.
The court also found that requiring students, even one student, to give between 5 and 10 days advanced notice to speak in the speech zone was an unconstitutional prior restraint. And, again, the court cited an ADF case to support this conclusion.
The opinion contains other nuggets of constitutional gold, making it worth a read. Yet another indication that public universities must eliminate their unconstitutional speech zones and advanced notice requirements. And ADF is taking the lead to ensure that result.
Congratulations to our friends at FIRE for their great work on this case.