YALUTSA Free Speech Wall: When unreasonable safety concerns inhibit free speech.
Two weeks ago, my Young Americans for Liberty chapter at the University of Texas at San Antonio hosted a Free Speech Wall on campus. You can read a full description of the Free Speech Wall Week event. The chapter decided we would end the semester on an issue that would be a popular hit with the student body. Renowned for bureaucracy and red tape, we knew the university would be a tough hurdle to overcome. Many organizations complain that the school’s lengthy and arduous application process inhibits student organizations from hosting events. However, our chapter decided the free speech wall would be worth the fight.
Jason Hensley, our YAL chapter president, said: “We need a wall for the students to voice their opinion, and I’m tired of students having to cut through massive amounts of red tape just to do things like this.” Jason recounted a quote from Adam Kissel of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): “If college kids are not offended on a daily basis walking through campus, something is wrong.” Jason goes on to say: “College should be the hub for intriguing ideas, offensive or not, and we definitely have a lack of controversy here. We’ll cut through the massive bureaucracy and build a wall where students can come express themselves.”
Jason’s rousing speech empowered the rest of the chapter to quickly put together a plan, and they were all hands on deck.
Our chapter discussed numerous ideas on how to host the free speech wall. One idea was to post up construction paper over one of the campus building walls like the Free Speech Wall done by College Libertarians at Pepperdine University, but we knew from experience that the school wouldn’t allow this for fear of damaging buildings.
One of the chapter members, Dustin Keenzel, felt our chapter could build the wall ourselves and avoid fighting to post paper on the buildings, so he drew up a proposal and created a design. His design was solid, and the rest of the chapter loved it! One problem though; he estimated the materials cost to be about $135. Where would we get the funding? SFL has a protest grant to help support the monetary cost of liberty based activism events. I wrote up a proposal to SFL. They loved our idea and agreed to pay the entire cost! We were in business!
Dealing with the school bureaucracy
We set a date back in January, to host the wall over the week of March 27th – April 1st. We started talking with the school in January and sent in our paperwork to host the event outside on campus. We didn’t hear from the school for many weeks. Meanwhile, we came up with specification as to what the wall would look like and sent in our designs.
After weeks, the school responded and sent us an email describing that we need to send them further details on designs and give a risk assessment. Our treasurer, Josh Bart, put together the school-required risk assessment that would cover all possible problems which may arise while hosting the wall (e.g. fire hazard, tripping hazard, risk of falling over, blocking hazard, etc.). The rest of the chapter studied it and with few objections felt the assessment had covered every thinkable risk. Josh took the report and with the aid of Jason presented it to events management, risk management, and the facilities departments.
The school held onto the report and waited to get back to the chapter for a couple weeks. Then, finally after Jason asked and prodded, the school returned with a response that the wall may pose a risk of falling.
We hit the drawing board again. Dustin, a construction management major and extremely experienced at building, felt the wall was quite sturdy as it was, but reformulated the plans and extended the bases, added on a side for stability, and shaped the wall into a half hexagon. Certainly, the school would have to see that this wall could withstand the stiffest of winds or hold firm from the most determined pushover attempt by passersby. After sending in the request and waiting another elongated period for risk assessment, we heard back from the school. Their retort came back to us over Spring Break, March 13th- 21st (one week before our March 27th Free Speech Week) while we were all on vacation. Their assessment: the wall is still too unstable and must be able to withstand “hurricane force” winds before it is allowed to stay up outdoors on campus.
Hurricane force winds? In San Antonio?
Getting back to school Monday, Jason Hensley walked right into the Events Management office and through hours of discourse and being sent back and forth between the Risk Management, Facilities, and Events Management offices, determined our possible options. Running around between departments became the theme for the rest of the week, and by Thursday we decided to build the wall regardless of the school’s approval. We came up with the idea to create a video and show the departments the undeniable sturdiness of the wall.
After buying the materials from Home Depot, the chapter members assembled to build the wall. “I can barely lift these bases, because they’re so large and heavy,” YAL member, Cydni Pohl, said as she dragged a wall leg into place. By the end, the solid giant stood 6 feet tall and 24 feet long with 5-foot bases as feet. It was more fortitudinous than we had originally conceived, standing castle-like in the wind.
We filmed the video and took pictures of four people getting on top of the wall trying to shake and push it over. It was impossible. The wall was a rock. We were unable to actualize the school’s concerns about its safety and had empirical evidence to show they were unfounded.
We presented the school with the video, and they still did not budge. They insisted we purchase insurance at an estimated cost of several thousands of dollars. Several thousand!? We were devastated. Our week was almost upon us, and the school still wouldn’t allow us to host the event. We had no other option but to push back the date of our Free Speech Week.
Upon consulting FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech On Campus book series (link to FIRE page), we found out that charging insurance fees to free speech events is a form of free speech censorship. The book describes charging insurance fees to free speech events would leave the decision regarding the insurance cost up to the administration’s estimate of how risky the event will be. A Supreme Court case called Forsyth County v. The Nationalist Movement (1992) dealt with a provision of a county ordinance declaring that the cost of protecting demonstrators on public property should be charged to the demonstrators themselves, if that cost exceeded the normal cost of law enforcement. The Supreme Court overturned this policy stating that imposing charges on free speech could be used to censor speech.
The following week we were in the department offices nearly every day to determine what we were able to do. Due to the departments’ delayed responses, we pushed back plans until about April 7th. Finally, we received word that we could host the wall in an indoor setting where there is no wind. We weren’t happy with the location because this was an area where student traffic is minimal. Worried we may not get the chance to host the event before the end of the semester, we decided to accept this option and set up the event for April 11th, the following week.
There are a few key takeaways that we learned after this tremendous ordeal. No other student group should have to fight the same arduous battle, but in case you do, here are a few lessons I took away from this experience:
- Plan well ahead of time. This way if you need to make changes you have time to do so.
- Be friendly with the school bureaucracy. You will need them to be on your side, so be friendly and professional at all times. Working with them can be frustrating, but your patience will pay off in the end.
- Perseverance. Never give up! Fighting for liberty is rarely an easy endeavor. You will inevitably encounter roadblocks along the way. Keep your end goal in mind and work on each problem one at a time. With hard work and a good plan, you will be successful in the end.