Students and faculty of California universities have grave concerns about the administration’s attitude about their rights
Is free speech still free when you need permission to speak?
Student protests are a big part of campus life. For the past five years, students across the U.S. have vocalized their opposition to the war in Iraq. In California, students have fought alongside university service workers as they demanded fair pay. At the UCs, livid students have continued to protest the University of California’s leading role in the development and manufacturing of America’s nuclear
weapons. And at UC Santa Cruz earlier this year, animal rights activists attacked the home of a UCSC faculty member who was involved in animal research. Keeping all these protests peaceful has been a big job for the administration.
But when does protection become restriction? A number of recently implemented University of California regulations are leaving many members of the UC community feeling like their freedom of speech is in serious danger.
“On a much larger world picture, it’s getting pretty bad, from the financial crisis and the bailout to the wars abroad,” says John Williams, a third-year UCSC student activist. “So students are getting angrier and in response to that administrations have to reinforce their boundaries.”
Williams is active in several student organizations—university registered organizations as well as unofficial ones—all of which are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to exercise first amendment rights.
“A lot of us like to think that the Constitution applies to us on campus, that we have free speech everywhere and right to assemble everywhere,” says Williams. “But, constitutionally, as a student, I’m not very protected at all. If the university says I’m doing anything that disrupts their ability to educate, they can stop me from doing it.”
Two recent examples of such reinforcement include the administration’s increasing use of designated “free speech zones” at campus events and a set of regulations approved by the UC regents in September that restrict the conduct of non-affiliates (those other than students, faculty and UC officials) on UC property.
Bettina Aptheker, a feminist studies professor at UCSC, agrees that there has been a visible constriction of student rights, but does not feel that the administration is acting out of fear of students or their behavior. According to her, they are acting out of fear of how that behavior might affect funding.
“They fear conservative legislators or governors restricting funding for the campuses. They fear punishment,” she says.
The non-affiliate regulations were proposed in May and officially implemented as Educational Code 92440 at the Regents’ Sept. 18 meeting. The list of restricted non-affiliate behavior includes more obvious taboos like nudity, loitering and noise, but also stipulates that such peoples will need the permission of a “Designated University Official” to carry, transport or post signs and fliers, and to hold or attend any event or demonstration. Violation of these rules is now a misdemeanor.
Many students and faculty, though not directly affected by the new regulations, are up in arms about the possible implications. They feel that this is an attempt to reduce free expression on campus.
Mike Rotkin, a UCSC community studies professor and ACLU board member, does not think it is legal or in line with UC values to restrict public access to the campus.
“All of this flies in the face of the traditional values of the university for being a place for open discussion and debateâŽ¯and not restricted to just those who are properly certified as students or faculty,” he says.
The non-affiliate code is what is called a “time, place and manner” regulation, a form of restriction that has been used for years by institutions to set reasonable limitations to rights. At schools, for example, the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions have typically been rules meant to ensure that education will not be interrupted or disturbed. Rotkin feels that the new set of regulations oversteps justified restriction.
“There has to be a limited set of restrictions that they can demonstrate are necessary for the functioning of the university,” he says. “But if those people are embarrassing them, or they don’t like their message—those aren’t valid reasons.”
Trey Davis, spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, explains that Code 92440 is not in the vein of controlling expression. He says the regulations were proposed after a series of disturbances on UC campuses at the hands of non-affiliates in which local authorities would not prosecute the violator because the university did not have policies that governed them. Now, says Davis, non-affiliates will simply have to adhere to the same rules of conduct that students and faculty do.
“It is completely misunderstood,” he says. “It is in some respects closing a loophole in a legal situation. It doesn’t have anything to do with free speech.”
Many skeptics of the regulations saw its passage as an attempt to deter union demonstrations, especially those in support of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that have been occurring frequently on UC campuses in recent years. However, Davis says that union representatives are exempt from the conditions. Rotkin believes the rules will still handicap demonstrations even though union affiliates are exempt from the restrictions. He is worried that many others, including the general populace of Santa Cruz, will not be welcomed to such events, thereby limiting community knowledge, participation and support.
“When we hold a rally, we’d like to invite somebody from the Central Labor Council and they are not exempt, or citizens from the city of Santa Cruz,” he says. “These issues have an impact on the entire community. Citizens of Santa Cruz should be able to come to an event like that whether or not they are an official campus affiliate.”
In creating a policy that makes it necessary for non-UC citizens to seek permission to participate in campus affairs, the UC has raised an interesting question about itself: are UC campuses truly public land?
California taxpayers pay for the universities, and thus they are public spaces. However, the first amendment law distinguishes between traditional public forums, where full rights are recognized (such as sidewalks, parks and town squares), quasi-public forums and non-public forums, like the middle of a freeway. Ryan Coonerty, a constitutional law attorney and legal studies lecturer at UCSC, says that universities are quasi-public forums because first amendment rights are restricted in certain areas, such as classrooms. However, he says it is arguable as to whether or not the rest of the campus is quasi-public as well.
“In general, UC campuses are owned by the people of California,” he says. “We pay for them and continue to pay for them, so we most certainly have a first amendment interest in having those rights on campuses. The last thing you want to do is have the government picking and choosing what kind of speaking is allowed.”
As for the regents’ ability to govern these publicly-owned lands, Coonerty compares their power to that of how a city can regulate conduct in a public park or open space. However, Aptheker is one of many worried faculty members who feel that, in this instance, the regents illegitimately exercised their powers. She says that the regents made the decision without any consultation with UC academic senates.
“The university is supposed to be self-governed by the faculty. You can’t adopt policy without the consulting the academic senate,” she says. “Every once in a while the regents do something they don’t really have the authority to do, and they usually get a backlash once the faculty finds out.”
Aptheker says that the UCSC faculty will most likely be taking a “backlash” action concerning the non-affiliate regulations in the near future. She believes that this is just one of many ways that the university is restricting free speech on campuses. Another major concern of hers, as well as many UCSC students, is the administration’s use of designated “free speech zones.”
Currently there are three official zones: one at Quarry Plaza (home to the Baytree Bookstore) and one in front of each of the two libraries. However, a temporary zone is chalked out at any given event when officials deem it necessary. John Williams has first-handedly been confined to these temporary free speech zones, and feels that they are used selectively and inconsistently. He cites a campus club fair that happened at the start of the school year at which he was passing out union fliers. When he strayed from his table with the fliers in hand, campus authority stopped him, explaining that he was no longer in a free speech zone. According to Williams, the representative retracted the zone when he contested, arguing that they were allowing fraternities and sororities to distribute pamphlets in the same area—literature that he claims is far more controversial.
“That shows they are really spur of the moment,” he says. “They aren’t actual concrete guidelines. They are tools the university can use when and if they want to be able to restrict free speech.”
Alma Sifuentes, Dean of Student Affairs at UCSC, says it is necessary that free speech zones be designated based on the needs of the event in question.
“It’s a very consultative case-by-case process, involving people who may be affected by a large gathering, event sponsors, people who maintain that part of the campus,” she says. “And, of course, these discussions also involve the people who are organizing a demonstration or protest.”
Like the debate over free speech itself, free speech zones are nothing new. However, many feel that they have been increasingly abused by the current administration. Mere months ago, Americans watched as the government pushed the free speech zones at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions so far from the action that no speech was audible by event goers. Aptheker believes that the reduction of students’ rights she is witnessing on the UC campuses is a direct outcome of this national development.
“In the entire country there has been an erosion of the Bill of Rights and of freedom of speech, assembly, publication, freedom of press,” she says. “It’s everywhere. It’s a result of the policies of the Bush administration and the draconian qualities of the Patriot Act.”
During her time as a student at UC Berekely, Aptheker was a leader in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s and helped mobilize the biggest student movement in U.S. history. Among many other causes, she fought long and hard for students to gain full constitutional rights on campuses and is saddened by what she feels is a current regression of these rights.
“The whole point of the free speech movement was that the regulations on campus should not be more restrictive that what the first amendment provides you,” she says. “But that’s what they’re doing. It definitely violates the spirit of the Bill of Rights, but they are doing it through loopholes that don’t violate the law itself.”
From her days of organizing at Berkeley to her nearly 30-year career at UCSC, Aptheker expects more from the UC system.
“I find it shocking that the UCs, which are supposed to be enlightened and progressive institutions, have adopted the policies of the Bush administration in developing restrictions on freedom of speech instead of encouraging it,” she says.
Rotkin agrees with Aptheker that the state of the first amendment at universities is reflective of a general trend in society. He argues that while schools have every right to restrict free speech where it may disrupt its role as an educational institution, they have taken the restrictions much too far.
“I think the rest of the campus is in effect a free speech area and I think the courts would find that if the UC were taken to court,” he says. In regard to the impact the zones have on students, he says that, “to the extent that they restrict a student’s speech, they undermine the student’s position as citizen.”
Aptheker hopes that the system won’t get away with it for long. She’s banking on the values of Americans, especially American students, to recognize how they’re being shorted.
“Americans feel very strongly about the Bill of Rights. It is one of our hallmarks as a country, how we define ourselves,” she says. “When these things are eroded there is considerable resistance. I think if vast numbers of students were made aware of the restrictions—most of them don’t have a clue—they’d be upset about it.”
They may not be vast in number, but Williams and his fellow group members are very aware of the repercussions of a weakened set of rights.
“I think it affects everybody,” says Williams. “Tightening restrictions on free speech and movement on campus is a harm to everybody. Everyone loses when you don’t have free expression of ideas. “