That Time I Wasn't Allowed to Exercise My Right to Free Speech

Alex Sullivan
Oct 24, 2012 at 1:07 PM

Today, I was passing out flyers with some other people for a speaker event that I was helping host with a few other people. Everyone passing the flyers out are members of our Young Americans for Liberty chapter here at Georgia Tech, but this event was non-related to YAL events, so we were acting individually.  

While passing out flyers, we were approached by a lady named Beverly Peace, the Campus Space Manager.  She asked us if we were with a student organization.  Because we weren't acting under YAL, but as individual students, I replied "No."

I believe that she then assumed that we weren't students at all, so she told us we couldn't be standing where we were and passing out flyers.  If we wanted to hand out flyers, she said, we had to go to the designated free speech zone.

I clarified that we were, in fact, students at the Institute, because I was sure that the designated free speech area was for non-students.  She proceeded to ask us why we hadn't reserved space (or a table) for this flyer distribution.

For clarification, whenever we have events with YAL, we always reserve space and a table.  However, this was extremely casual (literally just handing pieces of paper to students walking by), and we weren't acting as an organization, but as individuals.  I replied that we shouldn't have to reserve a table in order to simply distribute flyers.  She said that we couldn't distribute them without reserving a table.  

So I proceeded to try to explain to her that what she was doing was in conflict with our First Amendment rights.  As a public institution, Georgia Tech has an obligation to recognize, respect, and protect the rights granted to us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  She wasn't having any of it.  So she said "Let's go talk to the Dean."

I think she was saying this so that I would back down, hoping that I feared some sort of punishment that awaited me at the dean's office. So naturally, I said "great, let's go." I picked up my backpack and walked with her to Dean John Stein's office.  Little did she know that I had been emailing the Dean's office for months trying to schedule an appointment to discuss, coincidentally, Georgia Tech's unconstitutional free speech codes.

Once we got to the Dean's office, I stood and chatted with Ms. Peace and the assistant Dean of Students (whose name I did not receive) while waiting for the Dean and/or his secretary.  We talked about speech rights in general.  I emphasized the necessity of universities to be a marketplace of ideas not hindered by unconstitutional speech codes, while they argued for, and I quote, "a student's right not to be handed a flier."

Ms. Peace didn't know it when she approached me, but I have been working with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to change Georgia Tech speech codes that violate the First Amendment.  I told them this and they seemed opposed to the idea. I brought up the lawsuit that Georgia Tech had been involved with in 2006, and how they had to change their speech codes back then.  Both of them insisted that Georgia Tech had won the case (they didn't), and that nothing had changed (it had).  However, all the evidence I found (with help from a some good friends) suggests otherwise.  Additionally, the evidence we found suggests that Georgia Tech has recently changed its codes back to pre-lawsuit language. Scandal!

I am meeting with the Dean of Students, John Stein, and the Director of Student Integrity, Peter Paquette, on Wednesday, October 31 to discuss the speech codes in contention, and to hopefully convince them to work with me to change these codes before it comes to blows (again).

Great post, Alex! It sounds like you handled the situation perfectly. Keep us updated on how this pans out!

Bonnie Kristian's picture

Stay on them Alex!  Thanks for detailing your experience in this blog post.

carter.kessler's picture

Nice work Alex! Stay on them. If the legal precendent is already set, they're dangerously ignoring it and that will come back to bite them.

straus40's picture