‘Zones’ gone, campus opens to free speech

‘Zones’ gone, campus opens to free speech

October 19
21:43 2009

By Chris Speight & Josh Pherigo / Senior Staff Writer & Staff Writer –

Students may protest, rally or voice their opinions anywhere on campus under UNT’s new free speech policy.

After meetings with student organizations, letters from civil rights groups and repeated conferences with its legal counsel, UNT created a new policy for public assembly that could go into effect as early as Wednesday.

Jeff Pittman of The Lost Cause Ministries proselytizes in the free speech area in front of the University Union on Oct. 13. The non-profit organization has used one of UNT’s six designated free speech areas since January 2008, but a change to UNT policy will make all of campus a public forum. (Photo by Christy Angulo / Photographer)

Jeff Pittman of The Lost Cause Ministries proselytizes in the free speech area in front of the University Union on Oct. 13. The non-profit organization has used one of UNT’s six designated free speech areas since January 2008, but a change to UNT policy will make all of campus a public forum. (Photo by Cristy Angulo / Photographer)


President Gretchen Bataille approved the new free speech rules.

“Basically, the campus is now a free speech area. We do not restrict free speech. We have done away with the zones,” Bataille said, referring to UNT’s previous policy, which required reservations two days in advance for six areas on campus designated for free speech.

Bataille said she understood students’ frustration about how long it has taken to amend the old policy.

Jeff Pittman, speaker with the The Lost Cause Ministries shares the gospel at the free speech area in front of the Union on Tuesday morning. The nonprofit organization has regularly spoken at the very spot since January 2008. (Photo by Christy Angulo / Photographer)

Jeff Pittman, speaker with the The Lost Cause Ministries shares the gospel at the free speech area in front of the Union on Tuesday morning. The nonprofit organization has regularly spoken at the very spot since January 2008. (Photo by Cristy Angulo / Photographer)

Students from the UNT Free Speech Coalition met with Bataille in July to ask for revisions to the policy.

“They placated us,” said Garrett Graham, one of the group’s members and a radio, television, and film junior. “The meeting was very sobering and educational. I had no idea how little Gretchen Bataille cares about this issue.”

Graham said the group met Bataille with a list of demands and that Bataille told them she didn’t negotiate with people who have demands.

“We’ve asked to get our foot in the door and we are locked out of this process,” he said. “There is almost no student involvement. I haven’t gotten a response from them. She made it clear that this isn’t a huge priority.”

However, Bataille said she was interested in a dialogue with students, but there was a “tone issue” in the group’s demands.

“I asked for this policy change a long time ago,” she said, adding that legal revisions to the policy started sometime between six and 12 months ago.

Most major Texas universities already have a campus-wide free speech policy in place, including Texas A&M University, the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.

Others, like Texas Christian University, still have a policy similar to UNT’s old one, restricting free speech to designated areas.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to UNT on Sept. 9 demanding changes to UNT’s policy.

William Creeley, the director of legal and public advocacy at the foundation, drafted the letter and said that six free-speech areas did not provide nearly enough space for free expression.

After the group sent the letter, the UNT General Counsel was eager to assure that big changes were coming within 45 days, Creely said.

“By quarantining free expression on campus to just six areas, UNT betrays its obligation as a public institution of higher education,” he said.

In a 2004 federal trial, the foundation coordinated litigations at Texas Tech because students could only voice opinions in a “Free-Speech-Gazebo.”

The federal court ruled that Texas Tech’s policy violated the first amendment, and Creeley said UNT’s free speech policy clearly fell under the precedent set by that case.

“Students at UNT need to be aware of the fact that the value of their diploma will only be increased by these changes,” Creeley said. “Going to school in an environment where expression is celebrated and not hidden and students are exposed to a wide range of ideas is the point of a modern liberal education.”

Assistant political science professor Paul Collins said the right to free speech is allowed in any public forum and that college campuses are “much more ambiguous.”

“I don’t think anyone would agree that a classroom is a public forum, meaning that some individual or some group could come in and protest,” he said. “A different question is: ‘What about outside? Is that a public forum?’”

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