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WATCH: Speech code overrules U.S. Constitution, Arkansas Tech tells libertarian students

Just a ‘time, place and manner’ restriction?

A campus police officer at Arkansas Tech University told a student group that the public university’s free speech zone overrules the U.S. Constitution.

The officer intervened in a “free speech ball” event hosted by the university’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter as part of YAL’s national Fight for Free Speech campaign.

Like other ball-involved stunts by libertarian students, the YAL chapter encouraged ATU students to write whatever they want on the ball, even if it might offend someone, in order to raise awareness of restrictive speech codes on campus.

A civil-liberties group that has previously intervened in a ball stunt told The College Fix that it’s looking into the dispute.

The officer’s view that campus policies trump the Constitution stands in contrast to ATU’s action earlier this month, when it sent students to local elementary schools schools on Constitution Day to “explain the significance of the document.”

The speech restrictions may be contributing to a safer campus, though.

Last week ATU said it had been designated the safest public university in the state for 2016 by BackgroundChecks.org, based on “recent Department of Education Reports [sic], natural language analysis, social media sentiment analysis and their own research.”

‘On campus that’s the way it works’

The national YAL group released video of the ATU incident last week, depicting an officer who tells students they can’t speak outside the free speech zone without administration approval.

When asked if the YAL chapter had permission from Student Services for its activism, Jason Hammons, YAL’s Arkansas state chair, responds that its permission was not through the university, but “through the Constitution. It’s the First Amendment.”

The officer asks the group to move to the designated free speech area by the bell tower, which leads Hammons to ask if the school zones “trump the Constitution.” Answering quickly, the officer responds “on campus that’s the way it works.”

“Even though it’s a public school?” Hammons asks, and the officer nods.

Arkansas Tech’s student handbook requires students to make reservations to use any space, even outdoors. It appears to require further permission from the director of campus life for any event after 5 p.m.

Hammons told The College Fix “the university was completely out of line” by requiring the chapter to move its free speech ball into a free speech zone, limiting its ability to interact with other students and discuss ideas.

As a government institution, Arkansas Tech “should have no role in regulating speech” and “should only be responsible for protecting the First Amendment,” he said.

On a positive note, Hammons said the group had “educated students on the importance of free speech and that’s a victory alone.”

A ‘silver bullet’ to deflect criticism

Director of University Relations Sam Strasner told The Fix that free speech zones “represent a reasonable time, place and manner regulation” by the university, for the purpose of “avoiding material disruption of the educational process.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is “in touch with the students” at Arkansas Tech and is “looking into the case at this time,” Communications Coordinator Katie Barrows told The Fix.

FIRE sees “a lot of universities trotting out the ol TPM argument as a silver bullet to ward off any criticism,” Vice President of Programs Peter Bonilla told The Fix in a Twitter message, referring to time, place and manner restrictions.

FIRE warned the University of Delaware this spring that the school was trampling on students’ free expression after a police officer told its YAL chapter to self-censor its own free speech ball.

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About the Author
Brian Bensimon -- UT-Austin