The Fight For Free Speech: University of Akron

On Sunday, August 30, Anthony Palumbo, President of the University of Akron’s YAL chapter, was simply recruiting new members on campus by holding signs and handing out copies of the US Constitution when an university employee told him he was in violation of the University of Akron’s policies and would be arrested for trespassing if he did not leave. 

The entire encounter was captured on video, and demonstrates how misinformed and authoritative university officials can be, especially towards students. 

The university official begins by saying, “Let me give you the low down when it comes to ‘solicitation’ on a college campus…It’s a public space but within our confines we are allowed to choose what can be here, and we do that through a process of applying to be able to be in public space.” 

To be clear, the University of Akron is a public school that accepts tax-payer money to run its institution, and is therefore legally bound to uphold the Constitution on campus. Anthony and the other YAL members are students at the University of Akron, and are absolutely justified in expecting their school’s administration to respect their First Amendment rights, which allows them to assemble in a public space and practice their right to free speech without the need of university approval. 

The unnamed university official realized that the YAL member did not have the ‘required’ form to hand out materials and recruit new members, and informed them that they have to follow the University of Akron’s solicitation policies. When discussing the application process, which can take up to three days to get approval, the university official went on to say, “they aren’t going to deny you sir, I guarantee you.”

Then what is the point of needing approval if there is no chance that the university will deny their request? It appears as though the University of Akron has implemented this solicitation policy in attempt to censor student speech and ultimately make it more difficult for students to freely express their ideas and values on campus. 

AnthonyPalumbo

When Anthony politely asked the university official what the consequence would be if they didn’t leave, her response was extremely concerning. If Anthony and the other members of his YAL chapter refused to pack up their materials and vacate the public space, then the university official was bound to do her ‘due diligence’ and call the police to have them arrested for trespassing. 

The University of Akron was ready and willing to call the police to have its own students arrested for assembling and handing out copies of the US Constitution on campus without permission. This is especially alarming because the University of Akron is an institution for higher education that should be a safe haven for unfettered intellectual exploration, so limiting speech on campus by demanding that student organizations get approval prior to assembling undermines that traditional purpose.

The Leadership Institute’s Midwest Regional Field Coordinator, Abe Alassaf, was on the premises recruiting with Anthony, and asked the university official to clarify that University of Akron’s policies state that students are not allowed to assemble and practice their First Amendment rights on campus. Her response? “Within the First Amendment rights also is to follow university policy. I guarantee you if you decide to take up audience in a Wendy’s, they aren’t going to let you, you’re trespassing. In this instance, we have trespassing laws that work for us too.”

Unfortunately, this university official does not appear to be well versed on what the First Amendment entails. Trespassing laws are relevant for private property, which a public university is not. Perhaps, she should have picked up one of the copies of the US Constitution that the YAL members were handing out to refresh her memory. 

Anthony is now working with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to get the restrictive and unconstitutional policies at the University of Akron repealed to ensure that the right to free speech is upheld for all students on his campus. 

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