Tate Plaza

A “marketplace of ideas.”

That’s what Jan Barham, associate dean of students and director of the Tate Student Center, calls the University of Georgia.

But, some say that marketplace is not as open as it should be.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, rates colleges and universities around the country on their free speech policies. A red light from FIRE indicates a policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts free speech; a yellow light indicates a policy that restricts free speech, but not as severely.

Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of policy research, told The Red & Black that yellow light policies would “most likely” not pass a constitutional test in court.

In FIRE’s opinion, such policies at UGA include the Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy, the Internet Acceptable Use Policy and the freedom of expression policy.

FIRE takes issue with the freedom of expression policy for two main reasons. First, it designates two “free speech zones” as Tate Plaza and Memorial Hall. Second, demonstrations in other parts of campus must be approved 48 hours in advance by the Director of Student Life Jan Barham.

“Generally speaking, there’s no reason on a college campus that sort of traditionally public areas… shouldn’t be open for speech,” Harris said. “So, it always raises a kind of red flag when we see colleges saying ‘here are the two areas available for free expression.’”

She added that while she realizes groups can apply for a permit to demonstrate in other areas, it troubled her that the policy gave Barham full discretion over freedom of expression.

“I’m not saying that [Barham] is not making those decisions in a reasonable fashion,” Harris said. “But, you know, when you look at the law, the law requires… clear, objective criteria, and the policy doesn’t supply that.”

She said there’s a “very strong presumption” against the constitutionality of those permit schemes, and there’s no “compelling reason” that a demonstration needs to be registered with UGA.

Barham defended the policy, saying that the courts have allowed universities to control the “time, place and manner” of speech.

“The 48 hours is there because we don’t know what other factors are happening on campus that will take our energy and our time,” she said.

In addition, she pointed out her office has denied no “legitimate requests to assemble” have been denied since 2010.

She also said permits are approved as long as they don’t interfere with the business of UGA, and she works with groups to be sure their demonstrations can comply with those rules.

But, for FIRE, the lack of objective criteria in the policy and the existence of the free speech zones are not the biggest flaws in the policy. The biggest flaw is the policies inhibit spontaneous demonstrations.

“We have a very good example of this recently at the University of Alabama,” Harris said. “A pro-life student group was holding an event where they were displaying very graphic abortion images, and a pro-life group wanted to essentially counter-demonstrate and hand out fliers with pro-choice information on them.”

UA, however, requires groups to register demonstrations three days in advance, and the pro-choice group was not allowed to demonstrate alongside the pro-life one.

“The problem with prohibiting spontaneous demonstrations like that is that sometimes the immediacy of the message is part of how a protester or a demonstrator will communicate with their audience,” Harris said.

UA’s rule, which is similar to UGA’s, makes it so that groups have to wait until the original protest is over to counter-protest.

“[This] kind of waters down your message and the tools you really need to connect to your audience,” she said.

Nevertheless, Barham said UGA works hard to make sure all groups’ voices can be heard.

“We approach [permits] from a place of ‘yes’ and we look how we can make that happen,” she said.

There have been positive changes in UGA’s free speech polices. In fact, UGA revised a red lighted email policy after the 2011-2012 academic year. Harris said this occurred partially because of an article that appeared in The Red & Black during that time.

But, there’s more work to be done if UGA wants a green light.

FIRE works with colleges and universities to update their policies to better reflect federal laws. For example, in 2012 Ole Miss and Missouri State University updated their free speech policies to better reflect practices they had already enacted. Deans at both schools said the changes were simple, and both institutions were upgraded to green light schools.

Harris said that if UGA changed the free speech zones to “suggested” free speech zones — and allowed groups to demonstrate spontaneously on other parts of campus — the policy would likely be green lighted.

She also said FIRE would be more than happy to work with administrators at UGA.

The Red & Black attempted to contact Vice President for Public Affairs Tom Jackson and Assistant Director for Legal Affairs Tim Kelley, but both declined to comment on the matter.

“But, we would love to [work with them],” Harris said. “We would be very happy to — it would be super exciting if the university was interested in becoming a green light, and we would love to work with students and administrators toward that goal.”