Free speech, for some at least, soon will require sponsorship on University of Tennessee system campuses.
Though no one ended up in handcuffs like a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student did in November, a group of controversial street preachers returned to the UTC campus recently and reignited the discussion about whether taxpayer-backed universities should be a forum for public demonstration.
The issue is divisive. But the UT board of trustees already has weighed in.
A policy passed by trustees at their February meeting will require parties unaffiliated with UT to obtain the endorsement of a campus organization, faculty member or university faction before coming to any campus in the UT system to spread their message, regardless of what that message is.
Currently, unaffiliated people wishing to exercise free speech on campus simply notify the university of their desired location on campus, and the two sides arrange a time for their visit.
If the policy is approved by the state's attorney general and secretary of state, it will replace the existing UT campus speaker policies that a federal court ruled contradictory and vague.
One expert on the topic said the new policy is probably legal, though decidedly conservative for a public university built on the exchange of ideas.
"I don't think this is sound public policy," said Ken Paulson, president of Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center. "A college campus is a marketplace of ideas, and in my view, you should create some areas where students can be exposed to ideas beyond the campus. Many college campuses will designate areas for people from outside to be able to come and demonstrate or share their messages. And I think that's a healthy thing."
The new policy could bring an end to the days of street preachers such as Angela Cummings, who caused controversy on the UTC campus in November with loud tactics that campus ministries frown on and that some students dub "hate speech."
In that instance, UTC student Cole Montalvo was arrested for crossing Cummings' established perimeter while interacting with her as she stirred emotions with her boisterously voiced views on sin, hell, homosexuality and the like.
But with on-campus sponsorships of similar speakers unlikely under the new rule, even scenes like the one that recently occurred in the heart of the UTC campus might cease to occur.
While a trio of preachers shared their views April 3 from behind a barricade, with security officers blanketing the area in the pedestrian center of campus, the gay-straight student alliance, Spectrum, launched "Operation Rainbow Shield" alongside them.
The demonstrators waved rainbow flags and interacted with students passing by in protest of what they called a hatefully distributed message from the preachers.
"At first it was OK," said Connor Berhmann, a UTC sophomore and member of Spectrum. "It was when they crossed the line over into the psychological stuff that many on the campus don't agree with. You can't be picking out people and telling them they're going to hell to burn."
"It's not so much the message that we detest," he said, "but the way they deliver it."
But side by side, the two groups stood for their respective beliefs as the majority of students passed through the area without stopping to interact with either.
Late in the afternoon, some participants in the Spectrum rally made their way to the fenced-in area holding the preachers and the two sides engaged in seemingly peaceful discussion for several minutes as the speakers prepared to leave for the day.
UT consulted free speech scholar Rodney Smolla in developing the new rule to ensure its constitutionality.
An executive summary of the rule, provided by UT, says sidewalks and streets on campus would remain fair game for everyone, regardless of whether they have sponsorship, so long as the flow of traffic is not impeded. But pedestrian malls, bridges or any property with the primary function of allowing pedestrian traffic would be off limits. Those are the areas where the most notable public speakers have chosen to set up on UT campuses.
The policy summary says courts have rejected the proposition that a university must make all of its property equally available to students and nonstudents. Paulson agrees that courts treat campuses differently than open public forums such as city parks.
"It's a very conservative and probably constitutional plan," he said of the new UT policy. "But there's a fair question of whether it's really in the best interest of education."
Elsewhere in the state, the Tennessee Board of Regents maintains a blanket policy limiting use of institutional facilities to official school functions and affiliated individuals or their sponsored guests. But the member institutions are allowed to make their own policies regarding the use of their campus by unaffiliated parties.
At the University of Georgia, "Free Expression Areas" are maintained, and anyone, including students, wishing to use those areas must first consult the associate dean of students.
The new "Use of University Property by Non-Affiliated Persons for Free Expression Activities" rule at UT was penned after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that existing UT policies governing campus speakers were contradictory. The ruling arose out of a case involving a street preacher who sued UT-Knoxville in 2011 for barring him from campus.
In that instance, Cummings-esque preacher John McGlone was told he needed a sponsor for a campus visit even though he had been to the campus previously. Records show McGlone then reached out to 10 Christian-based student organizations for possible sponsorship but received a response from none.
At UTC, spokesman Chuck Cantrell said minimizing student distraction is important in an education-centered environment such as a college campus.
"If the new policy allows us to protect access to freedom of speech and at the same time protect our campus from disruption, then that's a win for our faculty, staff, students and the community," Cantrell said.
Berhmann said he thinks the new policy -- assuming it meets state approval -- will end the need for future implementations of "Operation Rainbow Shield."
"I don't believe there is a group that would sponsor someone who is so out there, like a blatant extremist," he said. "But we were more afraid because they could get a faculty sponsor. That's where we were seeing a way they could loophole through the law. But out of the campus ministries and other organizations, I don't think they would be able to infiltrate that."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at email@example.com or 423-757-6731.