An administrator at Keene State College in New Hampshire told Turning Point USA activists that they needed permission to exercise free speech at the publicly-funded college. The administrator added that they would also need to remain within the bounds of the school’s designated “free speech area.”
Conservative activists were told to “pack up and head on out” while recruiting members for the Turning Point USA student group at Keene State College, according to a report by Campus Reform, which obtained a video of the incident.
A man — who identified himself as an “associate director of campus safety” — approached the activists, and told them they needed to make a reservation in order to recruit students at the school, which is publicly-funded.
The man added that after being granted permission, the activists would then need to go to the school’s “free speech area,” which is a specific area on campus designated for exercising one’s own First Amendment rights.
“Hey guys — I’m the associate director of campus safety,” the man can be heard saying in the video. “Who gave you permission to be here?”
“No one yet,” said one of the activists.
“Okay, pack up and head on out,” the man immediately replied.
“It’s a public campus, though, and we have free speech rights.”
“It’s a public college, but the property is owned and controlled by Keene State College in the university system of New Hampshire,” said the man. “You cannot do this without permission from the college. Okay? So pack up and head on out.”
Campus Reform noted that it was unable to verify the existence of an “associate director of campus safety” at Keene State College.
The apparent administrator went on to suggest that he had no political motive in telling the activists to leave, and that the same rules have applied to an Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) supporter on campus. “We welcome everybody,” the man insisted.
“But everybody plays by the same rules,” he added. “You get permission, and you get clearance beforehand — we have a free speech area called [inaudible], and that’s where we’ll put you.”
“I’m sorry, free speech area?” probed one of the activists.
“Yeah — we call it the free speech area, because that’s where we put everybody — no matter who they are.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) describes “free speech zones” as a concept that might sound appealing in theory, but in practice, can “function more like free speech quarantines, banishing student and faculty speakers to outposts that may be tiny, on the fringes of campus.”
“As government actors, public colleges may lawfully impose reasonable ‘time, place, and manner’ regulations on campus expressive activity like speeches, protests, or literature distribution,” acknowledges FIRE.
“In other words, a college or university could ban the use of amplified sound near dorms after 10 p.m., or prohibit students from protesting in a way that blocks roadways or the ability of others to exit or enter campus buildings,” says FIRE. “In both of those cases, the university’s regulation is reasonable.”
FIRE goes on to state that “there’s nothing ‘reasonable’ about most free speech zones,” citing Modesto Junior College in California, which once required its students to request permission, at least five days in advance, in order to use the school’s free speech zone described as a “little cement area.” Moreover, each student was limited to only eight hours of zone usage per semester.
Duke First Amendment Law Clinic supervising attorney Nicole Ligon told Campus Reform that Keene State College’s purported request, however, appeared to be reasonable.
“It’s clear that the conservative activists were engaged in peaceful political expression,” said Ligon. “So to the extent that they were asked to leave due to anything other than the existence of a reasonable time, place, manner restriction that has been applied in a viewpoint-neutral way, that would be problematic.”
“It does, however, sound like this policy has likely been applied in a viewpoint-neutral manner based on the comment about a pro-Warren activist also being asked to leave recently,” added Ligon.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people passing by, and it does not appear that there’s a significant risk, at least of that moment, that the [activists] are blocking traffic or could create a hazardous traffic situation,” conceded Ligon, “but the school is still permitted to place certain limited restrictions on speech where those risks reasonably exist.”