Lawsuit claims speech isn't free at College Park

Two students contend policy violates their rights

April 20, 2003|By Kory Dodd | Kory Dodd,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The University of Maryland, College Park is embroiled in a dispute over how to reconcile campus policy with the demands of free-speech advocates, after two students filed suit claiming the university's 1991 policy violates their First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit, filed March 6, stems from a section of policy that limits "speech directed to a general audience or non-specific persons" to the Nyumburu Amphitheater stage, next the Stamp Student Union. Leafleting is restricted to the sidewalk space in the southeast plaza of the student union. Reservations are required for both areas and the actions can only occur during specific hours.

Rebecca Sheppard, a senior from Boston and a plaintiff in the suit with the campus chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the policy restricts her access to ideas and information because she is unable to stop by the designated areas every day at the specified times.

"People should be allowed to have that information and literature anywhere on campus," Sheppard said.

The policy also discourages people and organizations from speaking out and distributing literature because it is so restrictive, said Anthony Epstein, a lawyer with Steptoe & Johnson, in Washington, D.C., who is litigating the case for the ACLU.

But George L. Cathcart, a university spokesman, said the policy addressed in the lawsuit does not govern where students are allowed to speak on campus, only commercial interests visiting the campus.

For students, he said, public speaking is allowed in areas other than the designated free-speech areas, with the permission of the Campus Office of Reservations.

Permission is granted as long as the demonstration does not disrupt university activities or threaten the safety of those on campus, according to the university's Event Management Handbook. The handbook also makes provisions for clearly "spontaneous" demonstrations that require no advance permission.

As an example of the university's efforts to accommodate free speech, Cathcart said that on March 5, the university allowed students to hold an anti-war rally on McKeldin Mall. The area is not designated as a free-speech zone under the disputed policy.

But junior Daniel Sinclair, the other student plaintiff in the suit and co-president of the ACLU chapter, said the anti-war rally is an example of the university's selective enforcement of its policy.

"Different organizations can do different things" on campus, Sinclair said. Although the anti-war rally proceeded without interruption, he said several campus environmental organizations had their rally protesting Arctic drilling broken up by police. The rally ended because the group had not obtained a space reservation.

Sinclair also noted several instances in which members of independent political figure Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr.'s organization were harassed by police because of the policy.

Lawsuits involving university policies on free-speech zones have caused them to be eliminated or amended at West Virginia University, New Mexico State University, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and the University of South Florida in Tampa.

At Maryland, Sinclair said he became involved in the lawsuit because of his view that the policy hinders the "free and open expression of ideas" intrinsic to a university campus.

Sinclair said he had approached university officials in the space reservations office several times with questions about the policy, but they each gave him different answers. The policy is "a very confusing thing and if you want to have a public debate you should have things pretty well laid out," Sinclair said.

The ACLU sees the lawsuit as the best way to get the university's attention and its problems addressed, Sinclair said.

State Assistant Attorney General John Anderson said that the main problem is a misunderstanding about how the policy pertains to students. The university is working to amend the policy for clarification, he said.

Unless lawyers from both sides are able to reach a compromise, Anderson said his office will file the university's response to the lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on April 28.

Resolving the issue without the lawsuit would be the ideal solution, Epstein said, but the ACLU had approached the university many times about problems with the policy to no avail.

He also said the university's plan to clarify the policy is not enough. It also needs to address the difference between its policy and its actions, he said.

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