Dixie State University administrators are updating the free speech policy in light of a pending litigation filed in March by three students against the university.
Assistant Attorney General Gregory Soderberg led a session about the updated policy and First Amendment issues on DSU’s campus Wednesday morning in the Cox Auditorium.
President Biff Williams said administration has been working with Soderberg throughout the summer to articulate the policy; however, it’s not official yet. Soderberg said the board of trustees should approve it within the next month.
Because the current lawsuit against the university is still pending, Williams and Soderberg refused to comment on the litigation.
Students from the Young Americans for Liberty Club sought legal action after DSU refused to approve promotional posters for the club that negatively depicted President Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Che Guevara. At the time, the policy stated posters cannot single out any individual groups or entities in a derogatory manner.
In a previous article written for Dixie Sun News, First Amendment Attorney Robert Corn-Revere said DSU could rewrite the policies to meet constitutional requirements, or the litigation would move forward.
Soderberg said as a general rule, speech is protected under the First Amendment unless an exception applies. The reason why DSU needs an additional speech policy is because the First Amendment alone doesn’t give enough guidance, he said.
The Supreme Court has determined through various case law that administrators are able to restrict speech on campus as long as those restrictions are content neutral, narrowly tailored to serve government interest, and leave open and ample alternatives. As long as DSU stays within these guidelines, the university can:
- Restrict speech on areas like bulletin boards on campus
- Restrict obscene or defamatory speech (spoken, written or otherwise)
- Restrict students who are handing out fliers on campus if they interfere with classes or the flow of foot traffic across campus
- Limit commercial speech (mostly advertisements) on campus
“The types of restrictions that are content neutral and leave open alternatives to students … are acceptable restrictions,” Soderberg said.
In addition, other types of speech are not protected:
- Speech that inflicts injury
- Speech that incites an immediate breach of the peace
- Speech that encourages people to perform illegal activities
If obscene or defamatory material is posted on campus, DSU administration will review it with the help of legal counsel and determine if it’s obscene or defamatory before it’s removed. Soderberg said the student or non-student may have an opportunity to appeal the decision.
Soderberg said the policy distinguishes the Gardner Student Center and the adjoining lawn and patios as “sort of an open forum” where students can engage in free speech activities.
“Students may engage in free speech in that area without reservation at any time,” he said. “They can reserve it, but they don’t have to. Reservations take precedence.”
Kari Sears, a senior education major from Washington, said the new policy has the potential to define the campus as one that allows its students to freely express their opinions.
“Free speech is just that—free speech,” Sears said. “It doesn’t mean everyone has to listen or agree with what’s being said. It’s good that students are going to get a larger space to [practice free speech,] I just hope students don’t go overboard in [doing so.]”
Taking into account DSU holds university status, Camie Nelson, a sophomore health sciences major from Washington, said the change in the policy is wise.
“This change will be more appreciated by students and help the growth of Dixie,” she said. “It’s important to stay updated on these policies.”
“We’ve been very grateful for the insight [Soderberg] has been able to provide,” Williams said.
If students have questions about their First Amendment rights on campus, they can email Soderberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.