Student political group wins injunction against U.C. speech restrictions

Students in 2011 in free speech zone protesting UC's coal-fired power plant
Students in 2011 in free speech zone protesting UC's coal-fired power plant

A group of University of Cincinnati students that was trying to collect signatures for a right-to-work law in Ohio has won a preliminary injunction against the University of Cincinnati.

"I was pretty excited when I first got the email and read the decision," said Chris Morbitzer, a UC student who is suing the university.

According to Morbitzer, the student group Young Americans for Liberty was restricted to collecting signatures within a "free speech" area in a corner of McMicken Commons, a tiny fraction of the campus. The petitioners say they were only able to talk to six students due to the low amount of foot traffic when they tried gathering signatures there.  They went to the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati with legal help from the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, the group which also drafted the Workplace Freedom Amendment the students were promoting.

"If you can't get those ideas out on a university where people are supposed to be able to learn about new ideas, where else are you going to be able to?" Morbitzer questioned.

The students complained that other public areas of the campus were only available on 5 to 15 days notice depending on which policy was in question, and then only with approval of university officials.  Citing Supreme Court rulings, Judge Timothy Black said the university didn't tailor its regulations to actual problems that public demonstrations, picketing, and rallies might create, and says "such a restriction simply cannot be justified on the basis the University asserts."  Judge Black also said the decision in a case from Miami University that U.C. used to justify its policy, failed to distinguish between "designated free speech areas" like McMicken commons and "limited free speech areas" like campus sidewalks and U.C.'s Main Street area, and therefore it is questionable whether that ruling is valid any more in light of Supreme Court rulings.  Judge Black also pointed out a policy from Wright State University that appears to deal with some of these issues without violating Supreme Court rulings.

"They were basically doing a blanket prohibition and a requirement to get the prior approval of the university," Morbitzer's attorney Curt Hartman said. "Getting permission from the government to speak is not consistent with the First Amendment. It's a prior restraint on speech."

Hartman says the university was warned their policy on free speech was unconstitutional in 2008, but that they failed to make the necessary changes.

A preliminary injunction is issued to allow quick action in a case where the party suing is likely to win in a trial and could be harmed while awaiting a day in court.  The judge issued an injunction that says that UC may not require the students to register in advance to gather petitions, may not keep them out of several major areas where students gather, may not require advance notice for all forms of demonstrations, picketing and rallies, and may not place restrictions on student speech on campus sidewalks, the Main street area, or the designated Free Speech Area unless that restriction is "individually and narrowly tailored to serve a compelling University interest".

A U.C. spokesperson says the university is currently reviewing their policies and considering their options. The university released an "expressive activity" policy in April that, among other changes, increased the number of areas on campus where students could exercise free speech.

"Our primary mission is education so we have to balance rights of those who have purchased an education here with the rights of those who want to use the space for expressive activities," university spokeswoman M.B. Reilly explained.

Reilly argues the university's aim was never to censor speech, but rather to ensure safety on the campus. She says other universities have similar policies in place.

"These policies are indeed, very common at colleges and universities," Reilly said.

"Some colleges do, and that doesn't necessarily make it constitutional either," Morbitzer argued. "I have a feeling challenges may be coming their way to by their students."

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