The University of Toledo adopted a new freedom of speech policy this month in response to an incident last year where the First Amendment rights of protestors were violated.
The policy, titled Expression on Campus, focused largely on clarifying the logistics of how free speech can be expressed. It states that any person or group can use any publicly accessible outdoor area of the university with the exceptions of parking lots, garages, and driveways. While people can distribute literature, display signs and circulate petitions, they are prohibited from blocking others’ paths or impeding the university’s regular operations.
Former graduate student Derek Ide wrote in an email interview that there were two main passages of the new policy that were still problematic, including the need to give prior notice for groups of more than 100 students that are protesting and that it does not apply to official events sponsored by the university.
“This clause is harmful to democracy and students’ rights to free speech on campus, as well as the ability of students to mobilize in large groups when the situation demands it,” Ide said.
The policy does stipulate that prior notice must be given, but gives several reasons related to scheduling and resources for the requirement. Additionally, the policy specifies that if advance notice is not possible due to unanticipated circumstances, the group or person should provide as much advance notice as they can.
Also mentioned in the policy are prohibited actions — disrupting the university’s ability to teach or provide services, unlawful harassment, damaging UT property, or distributing or soliciting by placing material on vehicles.
Reem Subei, a UT graduate and a member of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the incident that prompted the changes occurred in October of last year, when a group of about 20 students and staff were protesting a Karl Rove lecture on campus.
“We were protesting peacefully with signs as people filtered into the event, which was being held in Doermann Theater,” Ide wrote. “We were stopped by the UT police guarding the event and told we were not allowed to enter the event with any signs.”
The group then questioned the police on what policy they could cite that allowed them to block their protest, Subei said, and when they could not cite one the group was still denied entry.
According to Azhar Majeed, the director of individual rights education program in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the group then contacted FIRE and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and together they drafted a letter to the university regarding the matter.
Following the protest against Karl Rove, Ide said UT was also facing other backlash for their actions during the UT Divest campaign, facing national and even international criticism for its disregard of student rights, which Ide said contributed to the policy change.
“I believe the university did something because it had to do something. That’s how things move — because of public pressure, not administrative benevolence,” Ide said.
However, according to Meghan Cunningham from the university’s public relations department, this is not the case. She said UT has always put a lot of importance on students’ First Amendment rights.
“The free exchange of ideas has always been essential to the academic experience at the University of Toledo,” Cunningham said.
Majeed said after these events transpired, the university then contacted FIRE and ADC to help write the freedom of speech policy.
“The new Expression on Campus policy provides additional clarity regarding that long-standing commitment to the First Amendment rights for all on our campuses,” Cunningham said.
Both Subei and Majeed agree that the new policy is an improvement of the old, and that UT students benefit from the change.
“I think it is a great policy,” Subei said. “I encourage all students to read it and understand their rights so that they can fully express themselves.”
The Expression on Campus policy can be found on the university’s website and is applicable to all students and faculty members of UT.
To read the open letter FIRE sent to the University of Toledo, click the link here.