Soliciting free speech

By Billy Rainsford

Last week, Executive Director of Residential Life Eddie Hull received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union detailing the unconstitutionality of the University of Massachusetts’ solicitation policy, which effectively bans all forms of solicitation in the residence halls at the University of Massachusetts. The letter, signed by Western Mass ACLU Director Bill Newman, described the policy as an “anathema to the principles of the University – dedicated, presumably, to the sharing of ideas.”

But the sharing of ideas does not seem to be a priority for the UMass administration right now, as student voices are being ignored despite demands for more involvement in decisions on campus. The ACLU reviewed the policy at the request of Student Government Association Attorney General Kyle Howard. It is unfortunate that Howard had to turn to the ACLU in order to send the message that students care a great deal about this policy, but with the administration refusing to listen, where else are students to turn?

The solicitation policy is a part of the Code of Student Conduct, Appendix A, and begins with the assertion that the policy is put in place to “promote sharing of important information,” which, as the ACLU pointed out, is the exact opposite of what it does. The solicitation policy effectively bans all forms of communication into the residence halls from outside groups. Outside groups can be anything from an off-campus business to a Registered Student Organization.

It is important to remember that this version of the solicitation policy is relatively new  and that only came into place last spring; I can recall receiving numerous fliers under my door during my freshman year. My roommate and I received a lot of menus, for example, from restaurants in the area, and it was pretty convenient for when we wanted to order food late at night. We’d also receive fliers from RSOs advertising events or looking for new recruits. We rarely, if ever, actually had anyone knock on our door looking to solicit.

While receiving menus is nice, the policy has a more serious effect on RSOs. For example, they can no longer advertise for events in the very dorms their members live in. If a member of an RSO wanted to talk to his or her neighbors about an event the group was putting on, then that student could theoretically be charged under the Code of Student Conduct for breaking policy. This is patently ridiculous and, as the ACLU points out, an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

It is also more difficult for RSOs to recruit new members without the ability to actually go and seek them out. The University has heavily advertised CampusPulse, the website RSOs can now use, as a new way to reach the student body, but CampusPulse represents a very passive form of adding members. The potential recruits have to learn about the RSO themselves, and then take the initiative to go to CampusPulse and find out more. By denying RSOs the right to be active about recruiting, the administration is making recruitment significantly more difficult.

This runs contrary to the aims of Residential Life, which champions the idea of community building. Students will feel more a part of the UMass community by taking part in RSOs, whether it’s by joining them or merely going to an event. By barring RSOs from soliciting in the dorms, UMass is weakening the ties between the campus community and its dorm residents.

Another major party directly affected by the solicitation policy is the Student Government Association. The policy specifically forbids “door-to-door campaigning for elections” in order to prevent candidates for the SGA to campaign in the dorms. Why the University would want to quell participation in the SGA elections is a mystery. The University should not be interfering in the SGA elections at all; this is a student issue, and it is not the place of the University to be interfering in our election processes.

It is unthinkable anyway that the University would want to discourage civic participation among its students. Voter turnout for the SGA elections is relatively low, and this could be remedied by having the candidates go and seek out voters in the residence halls. There is nothing wrong with students campaigning for fellow students, who are their peers and their neighbors.

The solicitation policy is, at its core, a student issue as it is students who are ostensibly being ‘protected’ from unwanted solicitation by the policy. But the students have made clear that they are willing to have people come into the dorms and speak to them. It is not unreasonable to expect student input in matters that primarily affect them.

The administration needs to involve UMass students on these matters, and listen to them as they protest a lack of say in these matters. The solicitation policy needs to be changed, as it will allow student voices to be heard and students to have a greater say in what goes on at this University.

Billy Rainsford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].