By: Monique Merrill
An emergency change was made to three chapters in the Washington Administrative Code on Oct. 13, affecting the use of university facilities, demonstrations, firearms and dangerous weapons.
The changes were made in response to violent demonstrations on campuses nationwide, Paul Cocke, director of communications and marketing, said in an email.
Outside demonstrators will now require a campus community sponsor for a presence in Red Square. A campus community sponsor may be a university department, recognized student club, employee group or some other campus backer. Outsiders must also reserve a spot, in Red Square or wherever they intend to be, online or they may be asked to leave.
Attorney Doug Shepherd said the changes to the policies, depending on the time, place and manner in which they’re enforced, could potentially be a violation of First and Second Amendment rights.
Shepherd’s expertise is in First Amendment rights and was involved in a major free speech case in 1995 in Bellingham. The case, which set a precedent for censorship throughout Washington state, involved an issue of the magazine “Answer Me!” being
distributed in a Bellingham book shop. Because of perceived graphic material, the City of Bellingham censored the distribution but instead had to pay the plaintiffs $1.3 million due to First Amendment violation and infliction of emotional distress.
“It’s when we hear things that we clearly believe are not advancing humanity, that’s when we find out if we really believe in free speech. If we’re willing to listen to what the people are saying, even if we’re not willing to listen, are we willing to let them say it?”
– Attorney Doug Shepherd
Though it is university property, Red Square is considered public land as Western is a public university.
“We don’t have a ‘free speech zone’ per se, but [Red Square] is typically where that happens,” Jennifer Cook, Associated Students student activities adviser, said.
Changes to Western’s policy on demonstrations includes a more in-depth list of disruptions, disturbances and interferences on campus that are not allowed, with an emphasis on keeping Western safe.
“We definitely want to be welcoming to outside folks coming on campus. They have the right to say and express how they want to,” Cook said. “When it becomes an issue is when there’s harassment, either by them or from our students harassing them.”
Students and members of the campus community still have access to Red Square and only require a reservation if the are borrowing equipment from the Associated Students.
Cocke said any event or speaker in Red Square who is disruptive to Western’s educational mission may be asked to cease the event.
If a situation is deemed potentially threatening to the physical safety of those involved, University Police will intervene, Cook said.
Cook said they do not monitor activity in Red Square but respond to complaints about speakers or demonstrators and stay informed on planned visits to campus.
“When we know that something is being planned, we get together to kind of proactively make sure that the campus and our students are safe,” Cook said.
The introduction to the rules in the demonstration chapter emphasize active participation in social and political issues as “contributing to the betterment of American society.”
Shepherd believes the importance of free speech comes down to the acceptance of conversations and participation that do not contribute to the betterment of American society.
“It’s when we hear things that we clearly believe are not advancing humanity, that’s when we find out if we really believe in free speech,” Shepherd said. “If we’re willing to listen to what the people are saying, even if we’re not willing to listen, are we willing to let them say it?”
Moreover, restrictions on who may use campus and the process of reserving a spot concerns Shepherd.
“The part that indicates that you have to either be a part of the university or have permission to even come onto the property to speak is difficult, at best. It’s public property,” Shepherd said.
Cocke assured that the university’s responses are complaint based and if there is a complaint regarding the time, place and manner of any person’s activities anywhere on campus, then the administration responsible for that area will take reasonable steps to enforce the university’s rules and policies.
“If you believe that you’re impacted unconstitutionally by the sentences or paragraphs, the only place to seek relief is to go to court,” Shepherd said. “Because power and authority is constantly drafting safety rules and regulations, or other sentences and paragraphs, that push back against the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.”
For some students, the open nature of Red Square is a critical part of the university.
“When I came to Western and did my tour and everything, we walked through Red Square, and they said, ‘This is a free speech square,’ I thought that was really neat and one of the many reasons I decided to come to Western,” senior Anna Kemper said.
Kemper, the AS local liaison, has been tabling in Red Square for much of her time at Western and has seen plenty of visitors use Red Square to promote their beliefs.
“A lot of the people that come from off-campus can be more bigoted or have these strong opinions that might not vibe really well with some Western students, and usually causes some big discussions and yelling and people’s feelings getting hurt,” Kemper said.
Despite the tendency for these interactions to become heated, Kemper believes the discussions can be valuable to campus.
“I think that it’s an important part of what makes Western, Western. And I think that if we start restricting free speech for people coming from off campus, that can undermine our values,” Kemper said.