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On The Front Lines

The Rutherford Institute Challenges West Virginia University's 'Free Speech Zone' Policy, Calling It Restrictive & Unconstitutional

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute File Suit in U.S. District Court on Behalf of First Amendment Free Speech & Assembly Rights of West Virginia University Students and Student Groups

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.--Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for West Virginia on behalf of the First Amendment rights of students and student-led organizations at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. The lawsuit challenges a new policy instituted this past April by WVU President David C. Hardesty, Jr., that restricts student expression and assembly to designated areas on and around the university campus.

The "Policy on Freedom of Expression" grants university administrators the right to discipline those individuals who violate the policy by speaking out or assembling in an area outside the "free expression areas." Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the policy appears aimed at restricting dissent, rather than the regulation of student activity. Institute attorneys are asking the court to declare the policy unconstitutional and enjoin university officials from future enforcement of such blanket policies restricting free speech and assembly.

Put into effect on April 1, 2002, the "Policy on Freedom of Expression" classifies speech activities into five categories: symbolic speech, posting signs, distributing literature, picketing and protests and demonstrations. The policy restricts "protests and demonstrations" to designated "Free Expression Areas," which are to be used for the purpose of "peaceful dissent, protest or demonstration." The "Free Expression Areas" in question constitute less than five percent of the total campus area. However, many areas traditionally considered appropriate for public expression, including several main campus buildings, as well as extensive portions of the grounds around the campus, the student center, and the building which houses the offices for the campus newspaper, do not fall within the policy's free-speech zones. The policy also restricts student organizations and individuals from distributing literature inside university dormitories or from demonstrating or protesting at special events without first making a reservation to do so. For example, under the new policy, the West Virginia Animal Rights Coalition, a student group which protests against the use of animals for research purposes, would be prohibited from doing so in the vicinity of the University's various research facilities and most of the areas around the Health Sciences Center. Should the Students for Economic Justice group desire to protest and demonstrate against the threat of corporate globalization, it would be prohibited from doing so in the vicinity of the Business and Economics Department. As it now stands, the policy would also prevent African-American students from protesting in front of the Center for Black Culture and Research.

"In effect, this 'free speech zone' policy gives University administrators the authority to permit or deny student expression based solely on their personal opinion of the particular message or viewpoint," stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "The Supreme Court has said that a public university is the 'quintessential free market of ideas' and The Rutherford Institute has filed this lawsuit to ensure that it remains so."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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