Campus abolishes its free-speech zone

Friday, May 9, 2003

MACOMB, Ill. — Western Illinois University has abolished its policies regulating campus demonstrations after students and professors waged a silent protest against it.

University policy had required protesters to schedule public speeches and gatherings 48 hours in advance, and had restricted gatherings to an area outside the university union.

Establishing such a restrictive free-speech zone infringes on students’ right to free speech and freedom of assembly, and “makes the rest of campus a censorship zone,” said Sara Goff, a graduate student who organized the protest.

Campuses should be “a marketplace of ideas, not a straitjacket on the intellectual minds of the future,” Goff said.

In their April 29 protest, about 30 students and professors marched through the campus in Macomb for two hours with gags in their mouths in the school colors of purple and gold.

WIU initially said it fully supported freedom of speech but had set “rational limits” to ensure gatherings weren’t disruptive. “They are free to express themselves, but you don’t run into a crowded theater and, for example, yell, ‘Fire,’” school spokesman John Maguire said.

Although the silent demonstration violated the school’s gathering policy, established in 1995, there were no arrests because the march was peaceful, WIU officials said.

The Peoria, Ill., Journal Star newspaper reported on May 6 that Western Illinois University President Al Goldfarb had rescinded the speech and assembly restrictions.

“There is no better place for free and open expression of ideas than a public university,” Goldfarb told the Journal Star. “Our entire university represents the ideal of freedom of expression. I do not believe that we would ever want to restrict free speech to a specific area on campus.”

In a news release before the silent protest, Goff was quoted as saying, “Free-speech zones, though concurrent with time, place and manner restrictions, are unconstitutional because they unreasonably prohibit free-speech acts.”

“The more restrictions that you place on free speech, the less likely it is to occur,” Goff said.

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