The Fight for Free Speech at U of Akron

The idea that basic acts of speech, performed in a public area, while not inhibiting the free access of others, should be unrestricted, seems to me to be a non-controversial issue. It seems to be non-controversial that so long as there is no pressing concern for public safety, one engaging in peaceful expression, should be completely free to perform that action.  

One passing out materials or holding up signs, while not stopping others from walking freely, in a public forum, is a basic right guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, others don’t see the issue in the same light, as was evidenced in Akron YAL’s incident with campus officials on Sunday, August 30.

Thankfully, the incident was recorded by fellow liberty activists and members. That day, after contacting campus reform, the incident was published within that evening. It got a few thousand shares within a day, and got the story good traction. Eventually, The Blaze picked up the story as well.

 Full story:

The story above is a good synopsis of the incident, but the following are some important facts regarding the incident:

On August 30, joined by Abe Alassaf from the Leadership Institute, and Tex Fischer and Thomas Hearn at Turning Point USA, I began my recruitment for the 2015 school year. At about 1:45, about 15 minutes before the start of Akron’s annual Student Activities Fair, we began to set up shop outside of an entrance to the Student Union, to begin recruitment for the fall semester.

I had with me pocket Constitutions, YAL introductory material, pens and a clipboard with sign up sheets, and a sign (sandwitchboard) which read “Do you like freedom and guns.” The others had with them other zany signs like, “Do you like Ron Swanson.” My mission was to pass out Constitutions, and to introduce students to Akron YAL. These signs were pretty receptive among students who were close by. Within less than a minute, we already had a number of students walking up, either because they are in love with Ron Swanson, or because they thought the signs were cool or humorous.

Unfortunately, within about 5 minutes of arriving outside of the Student Union, we were stopped by a campus official, who informed us that it was against Akron polices simply to collect signatures or to pass out materials, without first obtaining permission from campus administration. When asked what would happen if we continued our activity without campus approval, the administrator stated that we would be arrested for “trespassing.” Eventually, the administrator compared us passing out materials on a publicly funded campus, to setting up shop in a Wendy’s. Wendy’s, of course, is a private organization, to whom the First Amendment doesn’t apply to. Under threat of arrest, we ceased our activities.

A few weeks after this incident, I meet with UA administration and legal counsel, to discuss these matters. Like the women in the video, they were very cordial and respectful. When I brought up the fact that UA policies were restrictive, they argued that because there are exceptions to the university’s three day requirement,(allowing the President or another administrator to waive the requirement) these polices were not a burden on student organization. Of course, a waiving of the three day requirement is better than having no exemption to the three day requirement. Yet, the three day requirement still stands, and UA policy leaves it up to administration to determine the circumstances in which the three day requirement may be waived. These requirements, and other requirements, fail to understand that speech is spontaneous, as the court’s have noted. To require one to get approval before engaging in an activity one already has the constitutional right to perform, is a condition of speech, and thus beyond constitutional power. 

Although Akron YAL has complied- under duress, and will continue to comply with the university’s burdensome polices, we are working with the University to change these polices without problems. Through the generous help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. (FIRE), we are seeking to undue these burdensome restrictions. FIRE has sent a letter to the university detailing where the university erred constitutionally, and has offered to help the university change its policies to better respect student’s rights. FIRE is awaiting a response from the university, and will respond in like fashion, when the university responds.

As I mentioned, Akron YAL is a young and small organization, at this point. We haven’t even fully reached a year and a half as a campus organization. Hence, introducing people to Akron YAL, getting signatures to sign up or YAL, and other means of engaging with the Akron campus, was an important part of Akron YAL’s recruitment plan. As a young chapter in our second year, it is very important to us that we grow our base. David Warther, the founder of Akron YAL, and current VP of Akron YAL, worked very hard establishing YAL as an engaging campus organization. Unfortunately, being such a young organization, it never gained traction as a large campus organization. Hence, the university’s actions were a severe limitation to our ability to grow, and to become a viable presence on campus. Numerous individuals would have been introduced to YAL if we were able to continue our recruitment without restriction. Furthermore, being a small organization with continuous circumstantial changes, the three day requirement for engaging in speech, imposed by the university, restricts us from forms of spontaneous speech that would allow us to expand. 

Yet, as I mentioned, Akron YAL is looking to make the incident into a positive, by continuing to fight for free speech. We continue to actively table and clipboard on campus in more engaging ways. The incident has lead us to have a new focus on free speech. We now have a focus on educating students on free speech issues. Since we are hopeful that good will come out of this incident, we are looking to use the incident as a way of further educating students on free speech issues. Furthermore, we are beginning to build coalitions on campus with various organizations from across the political aisle.  

Our actions were not about us, or about seeking undue attention for ourselves. It was not about any potential personal gripe with the University of Akron, or about a personal issue with administration.  We seek to fight for free speech, very simply, so that other students may be able to engage in any form of peaceful speech on public universities. As I mentioned, we are hopeful that the University of Akron will change their policies, which will create an environment that will protect free speech for students at UA for decades to come. Furthermore, it will set a precedent so that other universities will change the policies, in due course. 

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