College Republicans at an Illinois university filed a federal lawsuit against the school on Wednesday, claiming its speech policy limits free expression to just “0.0013 percent” of campus.
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville is a school of 16,000 students about 25 miles northeast of St. Louis. The College Republicans there say they are “dedicated to promoting and advocating for conservative values” on campus by hosting speakers, distributing fliers and holding “peaceful demonstrations,” according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.
But such activities run afoul of a university policy that exiles such actions to a “Speech Zone” that exists within 20 feet of a boulder on a campus quad, the lawsuit said. Known as “the Rock,” the speech zone must also be reserved, effectively quashing speech rights at the school, according to the complaint.
“The Speech Zone contains approximately 905 square feet of land which is approximately 0.02 of an acre,” the lawsuit said. “The Speech Zone comprises less than 0.0013% of the entire SIUE campus.”
Such limits are contrary to the mission of universities, according to the suit.
“The cornerstone of higher education is the ability of students to participate in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ on campus,” the complaint said. “That marketplace depends on free and vigorous debate between students — debate that is spontaneous, ubiquitous and often anonymous.”
A spokeswoman for the university said administrators had not received the lawsuit and could not comment on it.
In an interview, Myles C. Nelson, a sophomore at the school and the College Republicans’ outreach chairman, said free speech on campus is a “no-brainer.”
“We’re not trying to make this a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s completely nonpartisan. We’re speaking up for every student’s First Amendment right.”
The College Republicans were represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Alliance Defending Freedom has successfully advocated for students in free-speech cases before, working earlier this year with an antiabortion group at a Pennsylvania university to change rules on campus chalkings, and representing two teenage antiabortion protesters who were confronted by an assistant principal outside Philadelphia. In a pending Supreme Court case, the group is representing a Denver baker who refused to sell a cake to a gay couple.
Meanwhile, debates about free speech, particularly appearances by conservatives and members of the alt-right, continue to rile campuses across the country. Earlier this month, for example, Florida declared a state of emergency when white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in Gainesville. A school in Ohio refused to host him.
Tyson Langhofer, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney, said it is clear where free speech should exist on campuses.
“The only permission slip that a student needs to speak in the common areas of a public university campus is the First Amendment,” he said in a statement.