Conservative student activism group sues UMass over free speech policy

By Alvin Buyinza

(Collegian File Photo)

A federal lawsuit was filed against the University of Massachusetts on Monday, Jan. 8, by the Young Americans for Liberty, a conservative student activism group, and UMass student Nicholas Consolini. According to the lawsuit, the University’s Speech Zone Policy violates the First and 14th Amendment.

The defendants include the UMass Board of Trustees, UMass President Marty Meehan, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life, Enku Gelaye.

Speeches and rallies are banned on UMass property unless they are conducted in front of the University’s Student Union building between the hours of noon and 1 p.m. Violation of this rule could result in possible expulsion.

According to the lawsuit, “The University does not define ‘speeches and rallies’ and therefore reserves to itself the discretion to determine when expression becomes a ‘speech’ or a ‘rally’ and when it does not.”

The lawsuit claims the University’s Speech Zone Policy violates the First Amendment because it prohibits the plaintiffs from conducting speeches or rallies outside of the limited one hour time zone in a small area of the campus.

The document also states the plaintiff, Consolini, wishes to engage in speeches or rallies outside of the permitted University time zone and has already purchased more than $20 worth of material for speech and rally-like activity. However, he is unable to use them due to the University restrictions.

Additionally, the policy “…grants unbridled discretion to unreasonably limit and punish speech outside the small location and time permitted if an administrator deems the expression to be a ‘speech or rally.’”

The lawsuit also states that the defendant’s Speech Zone Policy violates the 14th Amendment.

“The lack of criteria, factors, or standards in Defendants’ Speech Zone Policy renders the policy and practice unconstitutionally vague in violation of Plaintiffs’ right to due process,” states the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also states that the University has been warned of the policy’s unconstitutionality. On December 29, 2010, Attorney Mari Grace Chamberlain of the Alliance Defense Fund, an American conservative Christian nonprofit organization, sent a letter to now former Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Jo-Anne T. Vanin, detailing the policy’s alleged civil liberty violations.

In an email sent on Wednesday, UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski commented on the lawsuit saying, “The University’s policies regarding such events are in accordance with the United States Supreme Court’s longstanding acceptance of content-neutral restrictions on the time, place and manner of such speech. These policies provide a substantial opportunity for public speech while allowing the campus community to continue to conduct academic, business and other activities.”

Blaguszewski also included a link to UMass student demonstration guidelines, including the Picketing Code and the Regulations for Use of Property, before encouraging students to exercise their First Amendment rights.

“We are proud of our community’s tradition of activism and we support it.” Blaguszewski said.

Alvin Buyinza can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @abuyinza_news.