Saturday, November 9, 2002

University rules

Speak freely - over there


HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Sure, speech is free at Northern Kentucky University.

See that patch of grass within shouting distance of the plaza? That's the free speech area. You can say anything you want, as long as you're over there.

Such is the message NKU delivers to its students. It's not alone, either: The universities of Cincinnati and Kentucky, among others, also have free-speech areas.

They ought to be against the law, says NKU freshman Trey Orndorff.

He belongs to a campus group called Christian Student Fellowship. Someday, he says, he might like to share the Gospel in a public way.

He could strike up a conversation with another student, but what if more started to gather? If he were outside the approved zone, would he be corralled by campus police?

NKU also requires all handbills to be pre-approved by the administration, says Mr. Orndorff, 19.

"I think on a university campus, the main goal is to try to come to universal truths, and you don't come to universal truths without openly talking about things," he says.

"You should be able to say anything you want, anywhere."

Some things unlikely

I doubt NKU would censor a campus group's handbills. The pre-approval is more about controlling clutter and verifying the legitimacy of the organization.

Nor is the university likely to stop a student from speaking non-disruptively to a receptive group. Rules are rules, but they're often enforced only when someone complains.

Still, it's the principle that bothers me. "Free-speech area" is a contradiction in terms. As a general policy, spontaneous speech shouldn't be restricted to approved airspace only.

Universities began this practice in the 1970s, when student protesters were occupying buildings and otherwise disrupting campus life.

In response, the Supreme Court said it was okay to regulate the time, place and manner in which free speech occurs.

This is reasonable. But these days, the areas seem designed more for university convenience than to prevent any real threat to learning.

NKU, for instance, occasionally has problems with uninvited preachers who rant about hell and thrust tracts at students. Once, one of these loathsome types saw a girl smoking and screamed that she was a whore.

Restricting such people to a certain area allows students to avoid them, which has its merits. But surely there's a better way. We have laws against threats and harassment.

Mr. Orndorff sees another issue here. Universities are intent on enforcing "diversity." Segregating naysayers helps maintain the polite acceptance of all ideas, he says.

"Diversity is: I have a truth, you have a truth, we all have a truth, and if we don't talk about it, no one will get hurt," Mr. Orndorff says.

His truth comes from the Bible, and he says it's the only one.

I disagree. But I'll defend his right to say it anywhere he chooses. or 859-578-5584

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