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Conservative nonprofit threatens to sue UW-River Falls on grounds of campus free speech laws

Falcon News Service

March 13, 2020

What started out as a simple misunderstanding on campus policy has become an issue of First Amendment rights that could soon lead into a legal battle between UW-River Falls and a student.

Back on Sept. 6, UWRF freshman Sofie Salmon was accompanied by members of Turning Point USA, a nonprofit group that is affiliated with conservative and libertarian college organizations. As stated on its website, “Turning Point USA was founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk. The organization’s mission is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote principles of freedom, free market, and limited government.”

Salmon and the others were walking around campus with a free speech ball for any student to write anything they wanted on it. They were then approached by Kristin Barstad, the campus conference services manager.

Barstad informed the group they were violating a campus policy, but could not cite what it was off the top of her head. When Barstad approached the group, one of the members began filming the conversation on their phone. In the video, Salmon asked “What would be the consequences if we did not comply with the policy?”

Barstad responded, “University police would come and ask you to leave based on the university policy that you are violating.”

Salmon replied, “Thank you so much for answering our questions.”

Salmon was contacted for further comment on this story but declined.

Two months after the incident, Salmon attempted to get into contact with Barstad about the campus policy that she and the members of Turning Point USA may have been violating. In an email to Barstad from Salmon on Nov. 6, Salmon said, “Although we were not aware of any restrictions on our ability to recruit members with a free speech ball, we alerted the administration as to what we were doing so they would know what was going on. On the spur of the moment, you were not able to point us to a specific policy, but did tell us that if we were not willing to move, you would call the campus police to escort us out.”

Salmon did not receive a reply from Barstad and instead received a reply from Karyn Wells, assistant diirector of Student Involvement. In her reply, Wells said, “I received your email from Kristin Barstad, who mentioned you are interested in starting a new student organization at UW-River Falls. My office works directly with students to support them in this process. You will find the minimum requirements for starting a Recognized Student Organization (RSO). This will be a great resource for you as you begin this process.”

Salmon replied to Wells, and asked once again what policies that her and her peers were in violation of on Sept. 6.

“I cannot find any policies about speaking to other students about or reserving outdoor space on the website. It (the website) makes it really hard to know what I can and cannot do when I cannot figure out what the policies are,” said Salmon in her email reply to Wells.

After what had been perceived by Salmon to be a failure in facilitating communication with the university’s administration on what policies she may have violated, Salmon then reached out to the Christian nonprofit organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, to assist her.

Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal interest group based in Scottsdale, Arizona. ADF’s purpose, as stated on its website is, “To advocate for religious freedom to uphold justice and preserve the right of people to freely live out their faith.” Alliance Defending Freedom is also listed as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Alliance Defending Freedom was contacted for comment, but did not reply to questions asked by Falcon News Service.

ADF sent a letter to Chancellor Dean Van Galen on Feb. 10, stating that UWRF had unconstitutionally suppressed student expression on campus. The letter was written by Caleb Dalton, legal counselor of ADF Center for Academic Freedom. Dalton wrote, “To avoid litigation and comply with the First Amendment we request that you immediately revise UW-River Falls’ policies on expression to permit students to engage in expression in public outdoor areas without prior restraint.”

In the letter, Dalton also wrote that, “UW-River Falls’ policies currently violate the First Amendment and our client’s rights. On behalf of our client, we therefore ask that you respond to us in writing — no later than Feb. 24 — with the following: 1) identify the policy applied to prohibit Sofie from speaking, and 2) agreeing to revise the outdoor facility use policies to ensure that administrators do not prohibit students from speaking spontaneously in public outdoor areas.”

The university has identified which policy applied to Salmon’s misuse of outdoor facility use. The policy titled, “Use of University Facility”, says, “University departments and recognized campus organizations may use university facilities on a no-charge basis for those programs that are identified as being part of the direct department/organization mission for the University, and is not revenue producing in nature. Sponsorship or invitation by a University department/organization is required for the use of any University space by persons or groups from off-campus. The sponsorship of an off-campus group does not release the University department/organization from the responsibility of paying for direct costs and rental fees incurred with the facility being used. Sponsorship duties include the direct involvement (planning, organizing, and facilitation) for the event and include the monitoring of the event by the University department/organization.”

Based on the “Use of University Facility” policy, Salmon could not use the space on campus since she was accompanied by an off-campus organization, that group being Turning Point USA.

Also listed in the policy is outdoor space use. The “Outdoor Space includes: Amphitheater, University Center Mall, Hagestad Mall, Hathorn Lawn, and other outdoor facilities (exception is the athletic facilities).”

The process for any student organization or off-campus organization to use such space stated in the “University Facility Policy” is as follows:

  1. Fill out a facilities reservation request form.
  2. A tentative reservation is sent to the customer.
  3. Before the tentative reservation is confirmed, the requestor will need to agree to appropriate parameters for outdoor facility use and limitations for the event. (Requestor pressing submit is considered a signature) Depending on the size and scope of the event, the room reservation could also remain in a tentative status until the group meets with staff to discuss/finalize the event details.
  4. If event details are needed, starting 30 days prior to the event, a $5 per day fee will be assessed until the event details have been received.
  5. Campus Reservations will confirm the outdoor facility use and notify other departments on campus that need information about the activity including but not limited to Facilities Management, Grounds, University Police, Dean or Department in or near where the outdoor event will take place.

As Salmon had only notified campus administration earlier in the day of her intent to use the outdoor space outside the University Center with an off-campus organization, Barstad had to approach and ask Salmon and the members of Turning Point USA to stop walking around with a free speech ball.

The UW System Office of General Counsel sent a reply to ADF. However, according to Beth Schommer, executive assistant to the chancellor, the reply cannot be publicly accessed right now due to attorney-client privilege without a written request sent to the UW System Office of General Counsel.