St. Cloud State University has a speech problem

St. Cloud State University, a member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, holds a “yellow light” rating, according to the campus free speech rating system of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

According to FIRE, “Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

St. Cloud State University has a host of these ambiguous policies, allowing campus officials a wide berth in controlling speech.

In September 2017, the university changed many of its internal policies, outlined in its student handbook. The language of these changes ranges, but they are uniformly loose and cast a wide net around rightly protected speech.

The most concerning is a policy setting aside certain parts of campus for “public expression,” which should rightly be allowed anywhere on a public campus.

Despite vowing to protect “the rights of freedom of speech expression, petition, and peaceful assembly as set forth in the U.S. Constitution,” the university claims a right to “ locate any assembly so as to ensure that the activity does not interfere with the normal operation of the university or interfere with the rights of others” as well as “the right to maintain a perimeter to promote physical safety.”

These so-called “free speech zones” are blatantly unconstitutional and restrict students’ constitutional rights to free speech on campus.

“We would ideally like to get rid of the free speech zones on campus, but the administration has not been cooperative,” Cole Uecker, Young Americans for Liberty chapter president at St. Cloud State University, told Red Alert Politics.

Further university policy states that “individuals or groups wishing to use any campus facilities other than the Public Expression areas must make arrangements through the office of the Vice President for Finance and Administration.” This policy grants campus bureaucrats power to corral demonstrations, protests, or even speeches by students at will.

Judith Penrod Siminoe, special adviser to the St. Cloud State University’s president, told Red Alert Politics that “the only consequences for violation spelled out in the policy are for actions that are disruptive to the operation of the university… in the Procedure we designate several public expression areas but we do not restrict all speech activity to those areas.”

According to Alex Staudt, director of free speech at Young Americans for Liberty, this still violates students’ speech rights.

“I can guarantee you one thing. If the office of admissions at St. Cloud State University said to students when they handed over the check for their tuition that their free speech would be limited, the enrollment numbers would be much lower,” said Staudt. “No college administrator has the authority to legislate over the Constitution.”

Free speech zones have been challenged successfully in court before, such as in a 2017 lawsuit against Kellogg Community College, a 2013 lawsuit against Modesto Junior College, and a 2003 lawsuit against Citrus College. Currently, there is an ongoing case against Pierce College in Los Angeles over restricted free speech on its campus.

FIRE is conducting a nationwide “Stand Up For Speech” litigation campaign that is bringing legal challenges to unconstitutional free speech policies around the country. It is painfully clear that as long as administrators attempt to suppress free expression, they will be challenged, and defeated, in court.

Similarly, Young Americans for Liberty is supporting the mission for freedom of speech through its national “Fight for Free Speech” campaign, which has helped revise 31 unconstitutional campus speech codes and restored First Amendment rights to over 643,500 students.

Ian O’Shaughnessy studies Classics, History, and Political Science at Colorado College. He is a Media Ambassador and a Chapter Vice President for Young Americans for Liberty.