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What Was Wrong With the NEIU Proposal Limiting Free Speech on Campus

By John K. Wilson

The proposed speech zone and regulation of free speech at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago garnered a lot of attention from the Chicago Reader and FIRE because it was unconstitutional in its breadth and vagueness, as well as being just plain wrong and contrary to any system of academic freedom.

The problems with the proposed policy were numerous.

First, it unconstitutionally restricted free speech by requiring a permit process for the expression in public of any ideas. A public university can only impose “time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech that disrupts the normal operating of the institution. It cannot impose a blanket restriction requiring registration for all speech.

By its definition, a “time, place, and manner” restriction must be limited to a time, place, and manner. It cannot be applied to all speech at all times in all places in all manners on campus. For example, a university can legitimately restrict people from going into a personal office or a class (where they are not enrolled) in order to express their views. But the university cannot restrict all speech everywhere on campus.

This violation of the First Amendment is particularly egregious because this proposal applied it not only to large, organized demonstrations but to any handing out a pamphlet (a “visual communication”) anywhere on campus, an act that cannot possibly be disruptive.

Even more astonishing, NEIU officials proposed to demand that any pamphlet or newspaper to be distributed on campus must receive their prior approval.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled for many decades that the notion of government “prior review” and “prior restraint” of publications is totally anathema to the notion of a free press.

The requirement that a pamphlet or a protest must be submitted one week in advance (two weeks for those not affiliated with NEIU) is particularly illegal and absurd. By a strict reading of these rules, the student newspaper (and even official flyers from the administration) would have to wait a week until after it is published to be distributed.

The use of speech zones, which require that all demonstrations take place only in a few defined locations, is also clearly unconstitutional. Time, place, and manner restrictions of this kind must be reasonable, and a total ban on all demonstrations outside these specified areas, even when they are not disruptive, is an obvious violation of the First Amendment.

Although the policy proposal was withdrawn, it’s startling that any administrator who runs a university would ever propose something this repressive and badly conceived, and it raises serious concerns about how future proposals will be designed and implemented.