Questions raised about UI policies on free speech

Questions raised about UI policies on free speech

On a cold, windy day in December, on the last day of classes for University of Illinois students, Martin Smith headed to the Quad to gather support for a political rally in Washington, D.C.

The UI graduate student in history, a veteran of the Marine Corps and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, carried a stack of bright, lemon-colored fliers about the January rally.

He wanted to get the word out before students left for the semester.

The Undergraduate Library is always a busy place, particularly around finals time. Smith and other members of the International Socialist Organization, a registered student group, zoomed in on a spot outside the library's entrance.

The wind chill was below zero.

They soon moved to a spot inside the atrium that leads to the underground library. They set up a card table and arranged the fliers.

Not long after setting up, library staff asked them to leave. The appropriate place to hand out the information, they were told, was in the Illini Union lobby or outside on the union's plaza.

"Libraries in particular are known for free speech," Smith said. And yet at the entrance of the library, "a symbol of free speech, free speech is being squeezed," he said.

Two weeks earlier, members of AWARE, the Anti-War, Anti-Racism Effort, encountered similar reaction to their leafleting on campus.

During the state high school football championships, AWARE members walked through a university parking lot at the southwest corner of Florida Avenue and First Street and handed out bright orange fliers.

The flier, developed by the group Grandmothers for Peace, is titled "What Families Need to Know About Military Recruiting in High Schools and Colleges."

The AWARE members distributed them near the tent of the Illinois National Guard, a sponsor of the tournament.

Within 10 minutes of passing out fliers, they said, Champaign police arrived and directed AWARE members to leave the parking lot and instead stand on the sidewalk.

Campus, building policies

The two incidents have raised questions about free speech at the university and its policies on leafleting, picketing and assembling on campus. Can the UI, a police force or any other agency tell people who are leafleting they can't stand in one place and then direct them to another? What are the so-called free-speech zones? What can and can't you do on campus?

Smith and other supporters are circulating a petition that calls on the UI to adhere to its free speech policies and requests the UI to recognize the upper level of the Undergraduate Library as a space where people can distribute information – as long as they don't block traffic or cause disruption.

The American Civil Liberties Union also is looking into both incidents.

"We are very much interested in what's going on, and we are concerned," said Stan Levy, retired UI administrator and former president of the local ACLU.

"We're trying to gather the facts ourselves. We take (free speech) seriously and want to do as much investigation on our end as we can," added Rachael Dietkus, the organization's current president.

The university has policies about leafleting, protesting, picketing and posting signs and notices on campus that can be accessed from the UI's Web site. But not many people know they exist, and the text can be confusing, Dietkus said.

"Anyone can gather about anywhere and speak to anything," UI Dean of Students Bill Riley said.

However, the university can limit time, place and manner.

You can stand in the middle of the Quad with a megaphone at 12:30 p.m. and proclaim to the world your cause.

But you'll have to ditch the megaphone if it's after 1 p.m.

You can talk all you want with passers-by about your religious, social or political beliefs, but you can't stand in front of them and prevent them from going into a building.

"People can, for the most part, hand out materials about anywhere on campus," Riley said.

But you can't block traffic or disrupt university business.

In addition, certain buildings on campus, like the Assembly Hall and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, have their own policies.

"If you want to stand outside student services or another academic building, you're entitled to do that until you want to set up," said Riley, referring to individuals or groups who want to place tables or chairs in an area.

Registered student organizations must follow a process to set up a table, pass out fliers or organize any type of event, said Dietkus, a UI grad who was active in student organizations.

The designated distribution spots are Anniversary Plaza, which is the space directly south of the Illini Union on the Quad, and inside the Union's south foyer, said Brooks Moore, assistant director at the Union.

The Union's Office of Registered Student Organizations processes the space requests in 24 hours, Moore said. If organizations are interested in setting up a table anywhere else on campus, after the Union's office approves the event, the staff forwards the request to the campus' office of facility management and schedules.

Smith's group was approved for space in the Union's foyer.

"The problem with that area is it's noisy and you must stay behind these booths. Most people that pass by are about 20 feet from you. We wanted a spot where you can actually have conversations with people," Smith said.

As for the AWARE group, members had passed out similar information during the football tournament the previous year and encountered no resistance.

"All we wanted to do was pass out info," member Randall Cotton said.

Before doing it again, the group informed the UI police about its intentions – and the police did not object to the plan.

"We weren't demonstrating or protesting," said AWARE member Durl Kruse, who was leafleting that day. "We had one single flier. We weren't creating a disruption or a scene. They wanted to move us out of sight, to distance us away from" the National Guard tent.

Even though the parking lots are UI property, Champaign police officers were on the scene because they had responsibility for maintaining control in the lots and in and around the tents, Lt. Holly Nearing said. That typically happens during events like the state football championships, she said.

The UI's leafleting policy states that anyone (student or otherwise) can hand out leaflets or any other material about events or sociopolitical or educational issues without prior approval from the university.

There are a few qualifiers to that statement, though.

People can distribute handouts inside common areas of buildings as long as they don't impede traffic flow or disrupt university business (meaning classes, labs, meetings or office work). And certain interiors, such as auditoriums, lecture halls or gyms, are not considered common areas, the policy states. Some buildings require advance notice of leafleting. And some buildings, such as the Assembly Hall and Memorial Stadium, do not allow people to distribute materials past the turnstiles.

Plus, the handout can't advertise alcohol or businesses – or promote political candidates from outside the UI.

"It is a tricky issue," said Riley, who has since talked to UI police and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics about the AWARE incident Nov. 25. "I know going to football games there are all kinds of groups that work through the parking lot peddling all kinds of stuff. They hand out literature for support for all kinds of purposes."

Because the Illinois National Guard, as a sponsor of the high school games, had reserved space in the parking lot, the UI interpreted the relocating of AWARE leafletters as a "time, place or manner" regulation, Riley said.

Cotton's viewpoint? "The appearance here is free speech is being squelched for money."

Said Kruse: "The fact that we stood by the (Illinois National) Guard tent is what is the issue."

"There are some merits," Riley said, "in looking at what we're doing and reviewing the general policy on the distribution of information."

Let's review

Riley also said if people are interested in finding more places, more open areas where more people could gather to hand out information or talk about issues, that could be pursued.

The UI has a Committee on the Use of Facilities, which can recommend changes to campus policies about the use of building space. Students as well as faculty and administration make up that committee.

Areas where a registered student organization is allowed to set up are defined by campus policy, said Scott Walter, associate university librarian for services.

The library has its own policy, part of its patron conduct policy, about the distribution of materials.

"All these policies are really designed to make sure all library users have access to facilities and an environment conducive to studying and learning," Walter said. Standing in the hallway passing out literature "isn't really conducive to the environment we want to have in the library."

Levy revisited the library's atrium recently to size up the space.

"Two people at a table are not impeding traffic," he said.

The library never sought to have one of its areas defined as one of the designated distribution spots "simply because of the volume of traffic" that can come through its areas, Walter said.

But high foot traffic is exactly what an organization is looking for when it wants to spread the word about an event or issue.

"There needs to be more spaces available inside (buildings) for what they call free speech," Smith said.

Walter said he fully supports a student's right to speak with the UI student affairs administration, to look for additional space for registered student organizations and to seek to have the policy changed.

"I think it is a valid question: Is there an opportunity to create a public space within the library that would allow for a wide variety of action without having a detrimental impact on the environment that we have to maintain for our users?" he said.

Walter said he could bring the issue to the library's student advisory committee this spring.

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