After a recent court ruling, University of Maryland senior and civil liberties activist Chuck Mitchell is asking, "If not free speech on a college campus, then where?"
Like dozens of other colleges across the country, U-Md. has designated "free speech zones." Any outsider wanting to hand out fliers or get on a soapbox has to ask permission in advance and stay in certain areas the school has set. At some schools, those have been as small -- and as odd -- as a gazebo for the nearly 30,000 students at a Texas university.
At U-Md., the locations are limited but not small or isolated: an amphitheater stage and the sidewalk in front of the busy student union.
A federal appeals court ruled this week that U-Md. can restrict outsiders who want to speak or pass out fliers, despite complaints from students, a political activist and the campus and state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Students at U-Md., not usually known for their discretion -- just listen to the fans at any Terps game -- don't have to follow those rules. The policy used to apply to students, too, but the university agreed to change that in an earlier settlement.
"I'm not really surprised by this," said Mitchell, president of the campus chapter of the ACLU. "It's just another case of our university not respecting our civil liberties."
Cassandra Robinson, a university spokeswoman said, "It's not a restriction of free speech, just a restriction on managing university facilities" -- more of a logistical question of where and when the school can accommodate outsiders. "It's not an effort at all to restrict the free exchange of ideas."
The case started when a Lyndon Larouche supporter was told to stop handing out fliers and leave the campus.
The University of Maryland at College Park's "policy and practices also give university officials unfettered discretion to prohibit speech with which they disagree," the plaintiffs argued. "They have exercised this discretion in a selective and discriminatory fashion."
Students go to college to hear a mix of ideas, and "the current UMCP policy shuts down this marketplace of ideas," the complaint stated.
But U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus rejected those arguments.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court that the campus "is not akin to a public street, park or theater, but instead is an institute of higher learning that is devoted to its mission of public education" and "has not traditionally been open to the public at large."
Jerome A. Barron, who teaches First Amendment law at George Washington University Law School, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that areas such as airports are not public forums, meaning that they can have some restrictions on speech. Although he had not seen all the specifics of the U-Md. case, he said that as long as some part of the campus is open to everyone, he does not think free speech rights are being violated.
"A university is committed to the spirit of free inquiry," he said, but that also requires a place of quiet, for deliberation and thought. "It can't be a free-for-all, 24 hours a day." They need to balance the opportunity for students to ask questions "with the need for decorum and quiet."
Decorum? Quiet? On the College Park campus?
"I'm sure they're trying," Barron said, laughing. "There's some decorum, anyway."
Too much wouldn't be much like a college campus, anyway, he said. "It's not a cemetery."