Outdoor space rules get review

by Haley Hansen

University of Minnesota leaders are revisiting the school’s outdoor space policy, which governs the use of space on campus, that some say limits students’ ability to freely express ideas.

In the coming weeks, administrators, faculty members and students will review the school policy that includes restraining noise levels at certain hours of the day and requires students to have a permit for hosting outdoor campus events with more than 50 people, among other restrictions.

Faculty Consultative Committee chair Rebecca Ropers-Huilman said some of those restrictions are concerning and impede University students’ right to protest and free expression.

“At the core of what we’re doing is educating citizens,” she said. “So, if we somehow pretend that students shouldn’t be taken seriously or shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinions, then we are, in fact, working against one of our core missions.”

Stephanie Taylor, a University graduate who is involved with the campus group Students for a Democratic Society, said SDS members faced disciplinary actions under the policy after they protested former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s speech at Northrop Auditorium last spring.

After the protest, the University sent a letter to participants saying the group violated the school’s outdoor space policy.

While the members were never charged with anything, Taylor said, they had to attend several University meetings to discuss their behavior at the protest and why it violated the policy. 

Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young said the University can sanction students for violating the policy, but it can’t sanction them for what they have to say.

“Students always have the right to free speech. They always have the right to assemble and to protest,” she said. “We do not review the content of that free speech, but we do have policies that govern any disruption of University business.”

The Faculty Consultative Committee has met with administrators over the past few months to review the policy. Ropers-Huilman said faculty members’ primary goal is to ensure the policy doesn’t restrict students’ ability to express their opinions.

She said the outdoor space policy was already in line to receive an official examination this year before the concerns were brought to light, but faculty members wanted to make sure they were heard before any changes were made.

Brown Young said it’s unclear what the changes to the policy will be, but they will likely address vague sections in the current policy. She also said it’s unclear when the committee charged with reviewing the policy will finish its work. 

Brett Johnson, a University journalism doctoral candidate who studies First Amendment theory, said it’s not uncommon for cities to have similar laws that require permits for demonstrations. That way, authorities are aware of the assembly and can ensure everyone stays safe.

Johnson said while the University’s policy doesn’t take away students’ right to free speech, its provisions — like the requirement of a permit — could be seen as a barrier.

“It does have that indirect potential of chilling speech,” he said.

Taylor, the SDS member, said she’s glad the policy is being reviewed, but hopes students who have been accused of violating it in the past are able to provide their perspectives.

She said groups often turn to public space on campus because it’s an effective place to get ideas out and engage with the University community.

“It’s another way to sort of spread whatever message or event you’re trying to do to a larger population who may not be plugged in to your issue or your campaign,” Taylor said.