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‘Free speech ball’ leads to debate about campus policy

September 18, 2019

During the first week of UW-River Falls fall semester, a freshman student felt her free speech was infringed upon by a campus official.

On Sept. 6, Sofie Salmon, a student majoring in Meat Animal Science, took to campus with a “free speech” beach ball, encouraging students to write a message and exercise their right of free speech. Salmon, accompanied by a Turning Point USA representative and a woman named Bekka Beeton from the Leadership Institute, hoped to inform students about Turning Point USA, and their aspirations for it to become a student organization in the future.

According to Salmon, “Turning point USA is a non partisan group that promotes conservative and libertarian ideas. There’s been a few of these events across the country where there’s been a free speech ball, just encouraging students to write whatever and encourage them to use their first amendment rights.”

Shortly after starting, Salmon was approached by Kristin Barstad, the University Center’s conference and contract services manager. “She basically told us that because we hadn’t reserved the space we needed to move,” said Salmon.

When Salmon asked which policy had been violated, “She didn’t really have a name for it,” said Salmon.

If they didn’t move, Salmon said they were informed they would be removed by campus security. “Which is a violation of our first amendment right to be able to have free speech on a college campus,” said Salmon.

“We did comply and we did move but I was very bummed that she wasn’t allowing that because that’s the right we have and as the public who’s funding the university,” Salmon continued. 

The policy Salmon was violating connects back to three different documents. “There are a few different layers of policy here that apply. First would be the state statute chapter 21 regarding use of university facilities. This describes that any on campus or off campus entity needs to have some sort of affiliation or sponsorship or some sort of designated reason to be able to access facilities,” explained Beth Schommer, the executive assistant to the chancellor. 

“Then it also delegates to campuses the procedures for how we go about that. That brings us to our campus administrative policy which is administrative policy 01103 called use of university facilities. That describes in more detail some of our procedures and different responsibilities. This then references additional documents. The most detailed is the university centers policy and procedures manual where it clearly spells out if you are a non university group or if you are a university group and what is the procedure that you need to go to,” said Schommer.

Earlier in the day, another member of Turning Point USA had set up a table to pass out information in front of the University Center. They were also asked to leave.

“Here what we are talking about, the policy in question had nothing to do with free speech whatsoever, it was a question of reservable space. And the individuals were occupying a reservable space that had not been reserved according to the procedures.” said Schommer.

“They were informed of the proper procedures and of the non-reservable publicly accessible space, which is the sidewalk along Cascade, where they could’ve moved to and had their presence,” Schommer continued.

Salmon expressed that she wanted to give students who had interest in Turning Point USA, “a place to talk and a community to be in and promote those values.”

If Turning Point USA does become a student organization, Salmon plans to table, hold events and have respectful debates.

“We’re just trying to promote free speech for everybody, it’s not just for one side. I think it’s important for universities and students to know that this is a public funded university and they do have that right, so they should be pushing that right. That’s something as taxpayers are paying for as well as students who are involved,” said Salmon.

“Once they have registered student organization status they can access the same reservable spaces with the same procedures as any organization,” said Schommer. She also commented that it is more than welcomed for Turning Point USA to become a student organization in the future.