By Jessica Schnall
February 11, 2002
A handful of Ohio University students proclaimed their First Amendment rights last week when they met with administrators to discuss freedom of speech policy on campus.
“Since this is a publicly funded university, there shouldn’t be any more restrictions on speech than there is on a public park or on the streets of Athens,” OU senior and local activist Damon Krane told a small audience of about 20 OU administrators and students Friday morning in Baker Center Ballroom.
This forum came partly in response to issues faced by activists who staged the student walkout and rally last Monday to speak out against the recent hate crime and sexual assaults on campus. Immediately following the rally, a group of about 30 protesters marched to the office of Mike Sostarich, vice president of student affairs, and presented him with a petition requesting changes in policy for speech on campus.
The rally, originally planned to take place at the Sailors and Soldiers Monument on College Green, was moved to the West Portico of Memorial Auditorium, which is currently the space designated by OU policy for non-university affiliated groups to congregate. Students from several organizations on campus took part in the walkout, but the event was not sponsored by any one group.
OU senior Matt Meyer said that the monument should be made available for groups to use as a gathering point, because it is much more visible. “West Portico is really in a corner and in an area that can be easily ignored,” he said. “It’s physically easy to go through College Green without ever laying your eyes on it.”
However, Sostarich said that the West Portico has traditionally been the preferred zone for many demonstrations in the past because of its visibility. “It’s on the main campus green, and there is that traffic pattern there with the brickways,” he said. “It’s an ideal spot because it can accommodate a large number of people and has a nice backdrop. But now we’re hearing something else from students, and we can consider that.”
According to information compiled by the Office of Student Affairs, 38 events were held at the West Portico site from July 1, 2000 through June 30, 2001. A total of 1,238 events took place on College Green sites.
John Burns, OU director of legal affairs, said it’s important to take into account time, place and manner when designating areas of campus. “The monument has been viewed in some respects as a reserved spot,” he said. “We’ve always been concerned with the monument because of its scope and size, and it’s not really a demonstration place, but a communication place.”
When developing policies relating to free speech, OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan said that it’s imperative to balance the needs of the community with those of students and organizations on campus. “Our approach has always been to provide access,” he said. “We try to balance interests as best we can, but it’s also important to fine tune the policies.”
Krane said his biggest worry is that students’ concerns don’t seem to carry much weight.
Several students expressed frustration that they cannot directly affect policy or cast a vote. OU senior Rumzi Araj said that OU administrators should not be the only ones involved in the drafting and changing of policy. “The administrators are making decisions that affect administrators and students,” he said. “The best decisions are made when the people affected by them contribute.”
The current assembly policy has been modified and expanded several times, and administrators are open to suggestions from students, Sostarich said. “We want to make it work as best as possible, and at the same time to not be disruptive of the actual mission of the university,” he said. “This is a policy that continues to be revised, and it’s not set in stone.”
OU Student Senate President Jim Hintz, who also attended the open forum, encouraged students to become more involved with Student Senate to affect policy at OU. “To give the administration credit, they’ve been very willing to listen, and what we say does matter,” he said. “We don’t have an exact vote, but we do have influence. The bigger the influence depends on how Student Senate mobilizes the student body.”
A followup meeting is currently being planned to continue the discussion about free speech on campus. A time and date have not yet been set.
Richard Carpinelli, assistant vice president for student affairs, said he is not opposed to implementing new ways in which students can consult with administrators to voice their opinions. “We’re getting the pulse of students,” he explained, “and we’re learning our limitations, and we have a willingness to move beyond them.”