UTC free speech rules ambiguous yet common

UTC free speech rules ambiguous yet common

December 16th, 2013 by Jeff LaFave in Local Regional News

Jeff Garner addresses the crowd gathered to protest evangelistic speakers at Heritage Plaza on the University of Chattanooga at Tennessee campus in this file photograph from November. Garner was holding a large sign that read "Turing the Grace of God into a License to Sin" and was speaking his religious beliefs.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

A crowd gathers to protest evangelistic speakers at Heritage Plaza on the University of Chattanooga at Tennessee campus in this November photo.

A crowd gathers to protest evangelistic speakers at...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

A month after students, an evangelist and police got into a widely publicized conflict at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the university's documented stance on organized free speech activity remains murky.

Welcome to the club. Ambiguous free speech rules aren't unusual on college campuses, experts say.

According to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, which analyzes free-speech circumstances among college campuses nationwide, UTC's recent fracas with guest speakers places the university among countless peer institutions that are determining their policies as campus-specific events unfold.

FIRE has kept its eyes on the Mocs since street preachers such as national headline-maker John McGlone appeared on campus this fall, and the organization took note when student Cole Montalvo was arrested after confronting evangelist Angela Cummings on Nov. 15.

"We definitely heard about this controversy," said FIRE's Azhar Majeed, a legal expert on campus free speech zone law.

UTC's free speech policy contains gray areas that may not adequately address visiting speakers. According to page 36 of the Student Handbook, UTC is committed to "protecting the rights and privileges of the University community." The policy includes students, university officials and campus visitors.

However, the Assembly Policy on page 50 only lays out the rules of "student gatherings." The legislation does not explicitly state if "campus visitors" are subject to the same policies.

"At this time, the campus has no legal basis upon which to deny permission for the speakers to access campus," Chancellor Steve Angle said in a Nov. 18 news release to students who objected to Cummings' loud and fiery preaching.

According to FIRE's 2012 survey of college campuses, only one in six public universities has some sort of free speech zone in place.

UTC is not one of them. In fact, none of Tennessee's nine public universities has a designated free speech zone, FIRE found. Historically, such policies often unfold after a controversy over a public assembly.

However, UTC does have the benefit of parent school UT-Knoxville's reputation in First Amendment clarity. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff gave UT a coveted "green light" review in 2011 for "act(ing) quickly to revise any policy ambiguities or mistakes that would threaten or chill student speech."

Only seven of 400 colleges surveyed got the green-light rating.

Most U.S. campus free-speech policies developed during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the heat of Vietnam War protests. Universities guaranteed students' right to protest peacefully in a given space while not blocking the general campus flow.

Today, most campuses go decades without an incident.

"These policies have been on the books at these schools for years and years," Majeed said. "They exist to more broadly regulate speech on campus."

The street-preacher incidents at UTC from October to late November have been arguably the most high-profile instances of free speech controversy ever seen on the campus.

Cummings -- who spoke so loudly police often stood by with volume gauges to determine if she was violating city noise ordinances -- was granted a defined space between the Lupton Library and University Center, informally referred to as a free speech zone.

The proximity to the student center and a library angered many students, especially during exam season.

Scores of students, especially those studying on the library's third floor, complained to Dean of Students James Hicks about class disruption. He felt that the noise was audible, but tolerable.

"Annoyance is in the ear of the beholder," he told the Times Free Press in November.

The UTC handbook states that students don't need a permit to gather peacefully in public locations that do not interfere with pedestrian traffic, classes or university processes nearby.

Cummings secured a permit to speak in her high-traffic spot, and campus security protected both Cummings and her audience.

University spokesman Chuck Cantrell said officials review each permit request to determine if the venue and/or time is appropriate for the event.

But Majeed said such reviews, while good-natured, create a double standard ripe for abuse.

"Such policies will often say that students have to provide advance notice to university administrators or even gain their approval," Majeed said. "At a public university -- like UTC -- that restricts First Amendment rights of students and professors."

For example, Texas Tech University declared a single 20-foot-diameter gazebo to be the sole free-speech area for its more than 28,000 students to share before a federal district court judge ruled it unconstitutional in 2004.

Majeed said the nature of free speech, a universal right in the United States, must be applied as such -- everybody, everywhere or nobody, nowhere.

"The way we see universities enforce these policies, it seems they are meant to keep speakers on certain areas of campus," Majeed said. "You can certainly understand that if you have a very loud demonstration. You don't want that to interfere with classes. But when you're talking about silent, peaceful activities, it doesn't make sense to only restrict that to a few areas of campus."

UTC has prohibited public assembly during finals week as a long-standing policy, but it stems from a larger campus-wide focus on final exam preparation: even the school newspaper is on break during this time.

It is not known whether UTC can or will change its speaker policy before the spring semester starts Jan. 6. Cummings and other street preachers have not announced plans to return.

Regardless, Majeed says UTC is managing the process of figuring out its stance in a reasonable manner.

"It certainly seems like they are trying to do the right thing by accommodating this speaker, even though her views are controversial," Majeed said. "But they also have the obligation to serve their students, and I'm not sure they did that entirely."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.