In early September, something I had been waiting for finally happened. The residential housing staff of my girlfriend’s dormitory enforced an arbitrary and seemingly non-existent rule suppressing freedom of speech on Ohio University’s campus. Jilly had placed a flyer on her dorm room door highlighting the similarities between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama’s platform for presidency. The staff took this as a “political election” flyer and deemed that it could not be posted until within 14 days before the election and with prior approval from the residential director.
Unfortunately for Ohio University, I had just months prior finished my training with Students For Liberty to become a Campus Coordinator. Over the summer, I was exposed to amazing resources within the liberty movement, including a Jaclyn Hall of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose business card I immediately looked up upon arriving home after hearing of Jilly’s encounter with the residential hall staff. Having a contact within FIRE made the process of contacting the right person much easier. Jaclyn forwarded my email asking for FIRE’s help to her colleague Peter Bonilla, who took on the case with amazing spirit.
Finally, the day came when the RA staff informed her that she must remove the political flyers within 48 hours or receive billing and/or referral to judiciaries. The response was to censor her own flyer by placing a sheet of paper over it telling other that it was “censored until further notice” and to find out why they could attend OUSFL’s meetings where we could discuss the unconstitutional speech codes. It wasn’t until the university handed Jilly a written a statement stating that her flyers were in violation of their policies that I finally contacted FIRE.
What has followed since FIRE’s involvement has been quite the journey. Peter Bonilla wrote to Ohio University’s administration, detailing how their speech policies infringe on free speech rights and requested a response from the university. It only took a few days following FIRE’s initial contact with OU before Jilly received notice from RA staff acknowledging that he made a mistake and that the flyer policy he was enforcing was not legitimate. Following the quick remedy of the perceived injustice, Peter contacted Jilly and I asking for confirmation to issue a press release regarding the details of the event. This article would take off across the blogosphere to eventually end up on libertarian website Reason, as well as The Huffington Post. The widespread attention prompted Ohio University to go into damage control mode. The dean of OU claims that the whole incident has been “completely blown out of proportion” and that FIRE and OUSFL is blowing it out of proportion to gain media attention.
At the end of the day, this doesn’t change the fact that Jilly’s speech was suppressed by OU RA staff. On top of that, the original email Jilly received from her RA concerning the 14 day policy was also emailed to the entire student population of James Hall. Anyone in James who read that email would have been dissuaded from posting flyers on their doors, even though it wasn’t a policy.. It is in a university setting that free speech rights are most precious. The fact that the university is claiming that the rights of its students are something to be “blown out of proportion” shows the root of the problem, that the protocol to write policies at Ohio University is not conducive to the protection of the individual rights of the students.
What lessons can we take away from this experience? Students should flex their rights. None of this would have happened had Jilly not expressed her first amendment rights to criticize her government. If you think your rights are being violated by your school, stand your ground and make your opinion heard. I wouldn’t have known to contact FIRE had I not been knowledgeable of what my rights are. FIRE’s revised Free Speech Guide taught me that prior restraint is never acceptable in a college setting. FIRE would not have had the impetus to contact OU had it not been for the university enforcing a policy that infringed on our rights as students and as individuals. Also, networking is very important. Stocking up on business cards like a packrat made it incredibly easy to contact FIRE and local media outlets to spread the message far and wide.
I also suggest students whose rights have been violated use the new attention to get their group’s name out there. Now the campus population is generally aware that their free speech rights had been at risk in the past or could be in the future. It brings more attention to FIRE and to our group. With it being an election year it seems that more people are in tune with the political realm. As a result, OUSFL may start to see an influx of new people as they see our group making changes that impact them. While the College Democrats and College Republicans are out tabling to register people to vote or to advance a particular candidate, we are out changing policies and raising awareness about important issues that advance human liberty.