Editor’s note: The Palladium-Times received the following op-ed this week from representatives of Speech First, an activist group that claims to fight the “chilling effect on students’ willingness to exercise their right to free speech” on campus at American colleges and universities. The Palladium-Times has offered SUNY Oswego officials a chance to respond and will publish any response in this same space.

 

Higher education institutions in America welcome ideological diversity on campus… so long as you follow their elaborate and conditional speech policies.

At Oswego State, a public university serving 7,000 undergraduates, students and members of the greater community are forced to jump through unnecessary (and unconstitutional!) hoops before engaging the public in their point of view.

The university website claims SUNY Oswego “has been inspired by those who desire to push traditional higher-education boundaries.” But apparently you’ll need to get a permit at least three days in advance before pushing any norms or limits, as street preacher Jesse Morrell discovered last month.

Morrell considers himself a traveling preacher and Youtuber, and he visited the Oswego campus a few weeks ago to spread his message. Morrell’s preaching was, by all accounts, exceedingly rude. As his controversial speech began to attract a crowd, Morrell noticed a pair of female students holding hands and kissing as they walked by. Morrell confronted the women, preaching an anti-LGBTQIA+ message. Other students got involved, and a shouting match ensued.

Campus police responded and went to the public quad on the public campus “to see if Morrell had the permits to be there.” Morrell did not, and the police insisted that he acquire the university-sanctioned permits before he would be allowed to continue speaking. Morrell then went to the appropriate office to request permission from a campus bureaucrat to exercise his First Amendment rights, but was denied speaking rights because Oswego State requires a three-day waiting period for a permit to talk on campus.

As a public university, SUNY Oswego is bound by the Constitution to protect the First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed for all people on their campus — students and guests alike. Open air gathering areas on public campuses are considered “traditional public forums” in which speakers (even of controversial messages) receive the greatest level of speech protections.

Time, place, and manner restrictions are generally permissible in these areas so long as they are content neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest. For example, SUNY Oswego could prevent speakers from using megaphones in an area near classrooms during regular class times in order to prevent class disruptions, but the college could not allow some “preferred” groups to use megaphones while all others are banned from doing so.

A three-day waiting period for a permit to use the space could be reasonable in the rare event that it were necessary to prevent the area from becoming overcrowded (perhaps during move-in weekend or during a student organization fair). But photographs taken during Morrell’s preaching appear to show few, if any, other speakers attempting to use the space. Without any significant government interest, SUNY Oswego’s requirement for speakers in their public spaces to get a permit at all, let alone three days in advance, is likely unconstitutional.

The proper and civil response toward speech you don’t like is to ignore it, walk away, or engage in a discussion of your disagreements. SUNY Oswego is teaching its students the wrong lessons.  

Thankfully the president of the Student Association promised that the student government is working to pick up the University’s slack in facilitating productive civil discourse. The Student Association is “working on different programs and different practices to really help befit the student body. Not only in the aspects of their First Amendment rights but also in just life in general, of what’s going to happen when you take that next step off campus.”

Perhaps some of Oswego’s campus administrators can sit in and learn a thing or two?

Ross Abbott is a legal fellow at Speech First from Columbia, South Carolina.

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