By Casey Mattox
What speech would be “controversial” on your campus? If you attend a public university, the odds are good that “controversial” and “Christian” or “pro-life” are likely synonymous. So if the University could impose greater restrictions on your speech just because they deem your views “controversial,” this would provide a nice and easy way to marginalize Christian, pro-life or other conservative speech. The mere fact that your expression would draw hecklers angry that you dare upset the monolithic liberalism and anti-Christian views on many university campuses would be justification for the school to restrict your speech.
If you attend the University of Massachusetts-Amherst this isn’t a hypothetical, this was school policy. UMass-Amherst earned the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Speech Code of the Year for 2010 for this policy. Not only did UMass-Amherst impose greater restrictions on rallies where it deemed the views “controversial,” but it imposed a 48 hour pre-approval policy for even non-controversial rallies (7 days for “controversial” ones) and allowed administrators unbridled discretion to approve or deny these rallies for any reason. And UMass required “controversial” rally organizers to designate six students to form a security team – placing these students at risk from their opponents and effectively preventing small student groups from holding such rallies.
In response to a letter on behalf of the UMass Students for Life from ADF Allied Attorney Mari Chamberlain of Jacobi, Chamberlain, LLP in Lexington, Massachusetts, UMass-Amherst has eliminated these unconstitutional policies. On Wednesday UMass confirmed that it has now eliminated the controversial/noncontroversial rally distinction altogether, now only asks that space be reserved 24 hours in advance of any “rally” and eliminated its requirement that students place themselves in danger by providing a six person student security team. This is a significant improvement on UMass’s speech policies that had ranked among the worst in the country.
Problems still remain. Among them, UMass still doesn’t define “rallies” well, making it unclear whether a single student wishing to speak on campus must comply with this policy. And rallies – whatever that means – are still limited to a single location, the steps of the Student Union building. We are following up on these remaining concerns, but it’s still a good week for free speech at UMass.