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Editorial

UWRF policies may be infringing on free speech of students

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March 11, 2020

UW-River Falls has been faced with a lawsuit regarding potential restriction of free speech on campus. If the university does not comply by changing their policies that allegedly restrict free speech on campus, the lawsuit will follow through, according to a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom law firm sent on Feb. 10.

The lawsuit is regarding an issue that happened early fall semester of 2019. Sofie Salmon, a freshmen student at UWRF was told that she was not allowed to have a large beach ball on the lawn outside the University Center. Salmon was encouraging students to express their free speech by writing on the ball.

After Salmon was told she could not have a free speech ball on university property because of specific policies and the fact that she was not part of a student organization, Alliance Defending Freedom law firm actively looked for these policies and said that there is a case of First Amendment infringement.

Letter from Alliance Defending Freedom
This is the letter the Alliance Defending Freedom on Feb. 10, 2020, sent to UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen. Click on the image to view the PDF (2.2 MB).

The Student Voice explored whether or not the right to free speech is being infringed upon at UWRF. We have concluded that it’s complicated. We understand both sides to the argument.

Universities need policies for the general flow of day to day activities. One of the primary concerns of the university is safety. However, the policy in question is extremely difficult to find, and not all in one place.

The campus policy applies to everyone, whether it is a student organization or an outside organization, and it is likely to be an overall safety precaution. If any organization was freely allowed to access campus property, there could be issues in relation to the flow of campus and campus sanctioned events.

On the other side, many staff members pointed out that students should be able to express their freedom of speech with no regulations. Although policies need to be in place to ensure safety, the university should carefully consider at what point do policies like these cross the line and infringe on constitutional rights. In addition, if there is a policy, it should be easily accessible and clear cut as to what is and is not accepted.

When the incident took place Salmon immediately sent emails to campus administrators and officials asking where to find the exact policy. She did not receive a response on what the policy is in its entirety but the main response she received was how to become a recognized student organization on campus.

There is a video of the occurrence on campusreform.org that shows the exchange between Salmon and Conference and Contract Services Manager Kristen Barstad. The Student Voice staff agreed that the situation was handled poorly by campus representatives and that the policy should be known by these representatives when asked. Especially in a situation where the policy is being enforced directly. If the policy is too complex to keep on hand, it should be simplified so it can be easily understood and accessed. 

At then end of the day UWRF is public property and these policies may be seen as infringing on student’s free speech. However, student’s safety is a priority of the university and the policies can also be seen as ensuring safety on a day to day basis. It seems there is a need for a policy, but the current policy could use some updating.