Examining BC’s free speech zones

After some conflicts with groups demonstrating on campus, policy regarding the free speech zones on BC campus has been clarified after a letter sent to the college from the nonprofit group Alliance Defending Freedom. The incident leading up to this occurred when a BC club was prevented from holding a demonstration on campus.

In spring quarter of 2015, the Young Adults for Liberty BC club was holding an event by the L building, handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution and talking to students. Several BC faculty members stated that the activity was in violation of BC regulations and that the students were required to sign up for and make use of the free speech zones in order to hold their activities.

After looking into the free speech zone policy, John Richardson, founder of the BC YAL club, and YAL members decided to protest the free speech policy itself. The two zones need to be signed up for 48 hours in advance, and only one group may use one at a time. “I was looking, there was a lot of times that were already taken up by different groups that came in […] this is a hassle,” stated Richardson. “This really isn’t a good thing. It’s just a way of censorship because the rules are so harsh and strict, you pretty much can’t even initiate a conversation,” Richardson continued.

A month later, BC YAL protested the free speech zones on campus. The goal was to inflate a “free speech ball,” a seven-foot wide white beach ball that students could write whatever they wanted on it, exercising their First Amendment rights, as well as a petition to end the free speech zones on campus. “Within ten minutes, another faculty member came over and started taking pictures and asking questions and within minutes afterwards, campus security was on us. They were rather uncouth and rather threatening to say the least on that,” Richardson stated. One of the students started to film the interaction, until directed not to by a public safety officer and the student “felt so threatened and afraid that he did.”

After the demonstration was ended by BC faculty and public safety, one YAL member discussed the case of another college where the same kind of conflict occurred where the matter was taken to court.

The club then contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit with the goal of “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.”

A lawyer the club was put into contact with examined Washington code as well as BC policy, and determined that the faculty didn’t have the right to stop the activities of BC YAL. A letter was sent to BC, requesting clarification of the regulations covering the free speech zone, claiming that rules limiting student activities to the free speech zones were unenforceable.

According to Richardson, the BC legal team agreed with the lawyer, and said that free speech zones are not exclusively the only place that students can exercise their right to free speech, and the team would take actions to train BC staff appropriately.

“To me, I was very hesitant to make a stink about it but I’m glad I did,” said Richardson. “The first amendment, it’s not there to talk about the weather, it’s there to be able to talk about as controversial things as you wanted.”

BC Public Relations Manager Evan Epstein elaborated that the free speech zones are to guarantee that members of the community have the ability to exercise their First Amendment rights at BC, and that “Bellevue College students are not limited to these zones and may share information in any space on campus.” According to Epstein, the clarification will be communicated to BC staff, who will “be given a training prior to the start of fall quarter in an effort to ensure that all employees are up-to-date on these policies,” noting that “students have always been able to share information in any of the open spaces on campus.”

The Bellevue Reporter stated that “Multiple student groups have reported that they were prevented from gathering and speaking publicly at locations other than the two designated ‘free speech zones’ on campus.”

West Regional Director of Young Americans for Liberty Nathan Fatal commented, saying:

“This is a victory for all groups on campus regardless of political ideology, and for all schools in Washington State for that matter. Ultimately, free speech is not a partisan or ideological issue but a moral and legal issue. If the right is upheld for one group, it is upheld for all.”

The right to free speech – and to publicly gather and say potentially offensive things – is a fundamental right that public institutions of higher learning have the responsibility to uphold. In this case, I applaud Bellevue officials for doing the right thing,” Fatal said.