Teachers, students examine right of free speech after Morgan State protest

September 22, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

At Morgan State University Thursday, police dragged away several spectators who were booing Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Yesterday, students in Morgan Professor Walter Gill's mass media law class used the incident in an examination of just how far the right to free speech goes.

Is booing a protected form of free speech? How about booing the governor? Does the speaker have more rights than his audience? Should students care?

On the campus, a small, informal survey of Morgan students suggested that they are willing to let Thursday's incident pass. "It has died down somewhat," said Jennifer Pressley, a senior.

"That's over," said Chris Blake, a senior. "If you boo, great. But then you stop. There were a lot of guys [in the protest] who don't even go here. They wanted a fight."

But Professor Gill said his students, communications majors who had just studied the media's right to publish and to criticize the government, saw Thursday's incident as reason for concern.

"They said it seems like an infringement on one's right to %J protest," Mr. Gill said. "They were disappointed that students' rights to protest were not observed and that it was handled in such a poor manner.

"They also felt the security force was overzealous, that because a white man was here, they had to act more aggressively," Mr. Gill said.

At Thursday's event, Morgan State President Earl Richardson had just asked the crowd of about 600 guests and students to applaud the governor when some spectators, reportedly upset about a proposal to merge Morgan with Coppin State College, stood and booed.

The number of protesters varies, depending on who describes the event. Some students said only about eight were involved. College officials estimated 40. Some say the group was booing for only a few seconds when campus police officers moved in without warning, and a melee broke out. Others say the officers warned the spectators to stop and moved to eject them only when they persisted in booing and began using profanity.

Fred Douglass, a Morgan State spokesman, said one officer involved in the incident has been assigned to administrative duties while the Morgan police department investigates police actions. The university did not press charges against any of the ejected spectators.

Mr. Schaefer continued with his speech. His spokesman, Frank Traynor, said later that the governor had not been upset by the protest. "This was campus police doing what they thought they had to do," he said. "The kids clearly wanted to make a point and get on television.

Campuses across the country have struggled to find a way to protect both the expression of unpopular ideas and the protests they incite. The University of Maryland at College Park has a formal policy, written in 1980, on the issue.

"We would recognize that there is a First Amendment right to boo, to applaud, to let your views be known as a member of the audience," said Gary Pavela, College Park's director of judicial programs. "However, when the action of a member of the audience or a group in the audience crosses the line from being a reasonably short reaction to an ongoing disruption, then it is punishable under our internal campus rules.

"This is obviously a judgment call," Mr. Pavela said. "And there is no set time limit involved. It is a judgment of the officials present as to when expression has gone over the line into disruption."

Harvard Law School has written guidelines. "Responding vocally the speaker, spontaneously and temporarily, is generally acceptable. . . .Chanting or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner which substantially interferes with the speaker's communication is not permitted. . . . Violators of free-speech rights may be removed or arrested."

At College Park, Mr. Pavela said, "We want students to know in advance when they come here that we regard a university campus as being uniquely a marketplace of ideas. There's really no place quite like it in that regard." And speakers -- even unpopular ones who offer controversial points of view -- have a right to be heard, he said.

Kenneth Lasson, a professor of civil liberties at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said, "You really can't allow the person who doesn't like the speech to prevent it from happening by force or by his own speech. On the other hand, it's a difficult line to be drawn. Who's to say if the heckler's voice is too loud?

"In the way we Americans like to think, every place is a bastion of free expression, but certainly public facilities, whether it's a university or a street corner, are protected," Mr. Lasson said. "In the United States, we go further than any other country to protect that right."

David S. Bogen, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Maryland School of Law, said, "If you're interfering with lawful activity, then you're not engaging in protected speech yourself. You can be punished. If your protest is annoying but appropriate in context, then you can't be punished."

At Morgan Friday, Mr. Richardson said he was sorry the incident had overshadowed the reason for the governor's visit: the dedication of facilities built or renovated with state funds. "What I wanted to be known is that the Morgan University community is very appreciative of what the governor has done," he said. "I don't want the public to get the impression that the students here are ungrateful. It was incited by outsiders."

He said no students had approached him or called his office to protest the police actions.

Students, he added, should know campus policy: "Our regulations say they can display their discontent without disrupting the assembly. You don't have the right to impose on someone else's rights."

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