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Penn State Ends Policy of 'Free Speech Zones' By: Adam Smeltz
Centre Daily Times | Thursday, August 17, 2006


UNIVERSITY PARK -- Penn State students and activists have called them, disparagingly, the "free-speech zones," the spots on campus that the administration designated for big political rallies and demonstrations.

The zones, established under policy AD 51, have been in place seven years.

But in a legal agreement reached this summer, Penn State has quietly eased up on the controversial rule.

Student organizations and other groups can still reserve the 12 designated areas, including the Old Main front patio, to guarantee space for their "expressive" events.

Those zones, however, are no longer the only places where Penn State will permit a rally or demonstration.

In effect, the whole campus is now a "free-speech zone." Demonstrators just need to comply with university rules and regulations -- and not interfere with university business, according to the revised policy.

Laurie Mulvey, a sociology lecturer, applauded the change. She had written in opposition to the free-speech-zone concept.

"I, and other folks, have a gut, instinctive reaction against making free speech something that happens in zones defined by institutions," Mulvey said. "I think it flies in the face of what we believe to be our constitutional rights.

"That is, fundamentally, we believe we can stand outside and say what we think -- as quaint and provincial as it sounds," Mulvey said.

The policy change came as part of a settlement that Penn State reached with student A.J. Fluehr, a lawyer said. Through the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group in Arizona, Fluehr filed litigation in February that alleged several university policies violated his constitutional rights to free speech.

The university in May revised and focused two policies on intolerance and harassment. Under the changes, simply "unwelcome" language can no longer be construed as a policy violation.

David French, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said this month that those revisions were part of the agreement with Fluehr.

French confirmed that a June 28 revision to AD 51 -- the free-speech-zone rule -- was also included in the settlement. Further, Penn State paid about $15,000 in legal fees to the ADF.

University spokesman Bill Mahon said Penn State had been considering the policy changes even before Fluehr brought the litigation. Originally, he said, AD 51 was meant to reduce conflicts among activist groups competing for demonstration space at popular locations.

It was also meant to keep disruptive demonstrations away from university business, such as classes, Mahon said.

" ... There is no shortage of free speech at Penn State, and (there is) wide latitude granted to students and others who are looking for places to call a gaggle of reporters to for their event," Mahon wrote in an e-mail.

Fluehr, who is involved in the College Republicans and the Young Americans for Freedom, said he is pleased with the policy changes.

Policies no longer prohibit merely offensive language, Fluehr said. Rather, they ban language that would detrimentally affect "a reasonable person."

Peter Morris, a retired professor and a regular peace demonstrator, said he's happy with the policy change on demonstration spaces.

"I think that free speech is important everywhere," Morris said, "but it's even more important to the university."

Leaders with the Undergraduate Student Government also applauded the changes.

The ADF has brought about a half-dozen similar cases against university policies across the country, French said. Three are pending.

Policy changes similar to those at Penn State have already gone into effect at universities including Shippensburg and Georgia Tech.

French said that the first spurt of such cases arose in the late 1980s. Other activist organizations are involved in the fight, too.

"Federal courts have never upheld these kinds of speech codes," French said. " ... It's unfortunate that the litigation has to continue, but I guarantee that it will. And it will only accelerate until universities change these policies."

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