Politics & Government

Free speech is protected, right? Only on .0013 percent of this college campus, lawsuit says

SIUE chancellor Randy Pembrook is one of the university officials named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
SIUE chancellor Randy Pembrook is one of the university officials named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Belleville News-Democrat file

Free speech is protected by the First Amendment — but according to a lawsuit filed by a group of College Republicans in Illinois, their university has limited the area that free speech rights can be exercised to a 905-square-foot plot on the campus.

That’s about .0013 percent of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville’s campus, the lawsuit says, and even in that area students are allegedly required to get permission to hold events or distribute literature.

“The only permission slip that a student needs to speak in the common areas of a public university campus is the First Amendment,” said Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group representing the school’s College Republicans in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, and names the school’s president, Randy J. Dunn, as a defendant, in addition to a variety of other school administrators.

“The College Republicans are active on campus, and this policy is restricting their ability to get their message out. They’re limited to this little area within 20 feet of this rock,” Langhofer said, referencing a gathering spot on campus around which the speech zone is designated. “Every day when they’re trying to get their message out they’re restricted by this policy.”

In September, Campus Reform, a conservative group focused on higher education, says that police confronted conservative students at the school because a free speech exercise they were doing using a beach ball was intimidating other students.

Langhofer was familiar with the incident, but said the College Republicans’ lawsuit is unrelated.

“The lawsuit has not been served on the University,” Megan Wieser, a school spokesperson, said in a statement. “We have not had the opportunity to review it, and therefore, cannot comment on the allegations.”

The lawsuit alleges that “SIUE’s Speech Zone Policy prohibits students from speaking outside of the Speech Zone, including on public sidewalks, walkways, lawns, and other outdoor areas. Instead, students must confine their expressive activities to the Speech Zone, and if the zone is occupied, they may not speak at all.”

The lawsuit also says that, under the school’s speech policies, students’ free speech rights aren’t protected outside of the “Speech Zone” unless they “obtain permission from [Rich Walker, the school’s vice chancellor for administration] at least 48 hours in advance.”

Recent incidents on the school’s campus have ignited heated — if unrelated — conversations about hate speech.

Earlier in October, flyers advertising a white supremacist group called Identity Evropa began popping up on the school’s campus, according to the Belleville News-Democrat. Identity Evropa has been classified as a racist white supremacist group by the Anti-Defamation League, the News-Democrat reports, and as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We did not approve these flyers and removed as many as we could,” Michelle Welter, associate director of the Kimmel Involvement Center at the school, told the News-Democrat.

When a note with a racial slur appeared on the door of a student’s dorm in September, the school offered to give a free semester of schooling to any student who provided information leading to an arrest, the News-Democrat reported.

“There was a confederate flag painted on the rock, and there’s a lot of other things going on on campus that weigh on the student body,” Derric Roberts, a mass communications student at the school, told the News-Democrat in September.