Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Free Speech Comes to Penn State

The headline in today's CDT reads:University ends policy of 'free-speech zones'. This would be great news if it were true. Here is how the paper describes the situation.
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.

This leaves one with the impression that any group can now exercise free speech anywhere on campus as long as they are well behaved. However, the policy only allows for groups smaller than ten to do so. Further, the revision to the policy (AD51) which loosened the restriction on small groups was made in the July of 1999 four months after the policy went in to effect.

Here is how the 1999 change was explained in the Intercom, the now defunct house organ of Penn State administration,
The modifications will allow for individuals or small groups to engage in free speech activities at any outdoor location on campus provided that noise levels do not conflict with programs or classes and provided that crowd size does not prevent normal movement in and out of buildings or otherwise cause a safety problem.

"There has been a great deal of attention paid to the new policy that was put forth by the Campus Environment Team last spring," said Jones, who chairs the group. "The team was rightfully responding to concerns about classroom disruptions and the safety of students exiting buildings that were blocked. But some have expressed concern that the policy might unnecessarily deter individuals from speaking out in areas that are not designated by the policy."
This is how the Collegian described the policy change seven summers ago.
In a rare move, the Penn State administration has decided to listen to cries of dissent against one of its policies and has made revisions to Policy AD51.

As people might recall, the policy had designated only certain areas on campus as "free-speech zones," excluding the steps of Willard Building, the spot from which Gary Cattell has preached for years.

Now, a clarified policy makes it clear that free speech activities are allowed at any outdoor location on campus.
Note that these stories from 1999 sound very similar to what was blared from the CDT this morning. It would appear that the CDT is seven years late to the story.

Not that there wasn't a change this summer to AD51; there was. Here is how it is described in the policy document itself.
June 28, 2006 - Editorial change made in "Locations For Expressive Activity," removing sentence that referred to other areas on University property.
According to the CDT, " 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."

Exactly what was changed this summer and does it have any practical consequences? These questions remain unanswered.

It appears to me that someone spun the CDT. It could have been Old Main or it could have been Fluehr or his lawyer. Both sides come out looking good in the CDT story. Penn State loosens a controversial rule. That looks good. Fluehr wins his battle against the University. That looks good too. Who spun the CDT?

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