Speaker’s Corner Raises Free Speech Concerns

KATIE GOODRICH | Assistant News Editorspeakerscorner3

Butler University’s free speech policies will undergo changes to make the policies and process clearer for students wishing to demonstrate on campus.

“Really, we don’t have any formal guidelines (on free speech) per se,” said Levester Johnson, vice president for student affairs, “besides the time, place and manner approach, which isn’t written down, and acknowledgment that we have a Speaker’s Corner.”

The Speaker’s Corner at Norris Plaza has been the designated area for demonstrations on campus since September 1995, although this information had never been published, Johnson said.

“We just had institutional knowledge of a Speaker’s Corner,” Johnson said.

Norris Plaza and the Speaker’s Stone, a statue of a book, are located at the intersection of the north, south, east and west malls. It is between Lilly and Jordan Halls. The stone is on the south side of the plaza.

There is a portion that addresses the Speaker’s Corner in the Student Handbook in Rights and Responsibilities, Section XV.

Johnson said the section’s main purpose is to provide a clear guideline for formal demonstrations. The policy is not a new piece, but now it is clearly published, Johnson said.

“Many students and community members thought it would be really neat to have a Speaker’s Corner,” Johnson said. “(Norris Plaza and the Speaker’s Stone) were placed in order to support and acknowledge that voices want to be heard here on campus.”

The Speaker’s Corner portion of the handbook was added to the 2013-2014 student handbook.

Johnson said the section was added to this year’s handbook after demonstrations had gone badly at other campuses around the country.

“(Other campuses) did not have a clear process or information about what it takes for students to gather or protest,” Johnson said. “There were some really bad reactions from the administration and law enforcement. It really causes a lot of unrest on campus. The situation escalates.”

The administration wants to make certain that demonstrations do not interfere with the academic purposes of the university, Johnson said.

“If students wanted to gather around the Star Fountain and speak their mind, we have never interfered,” Johnson said, “as long as they do not interfere with the academic mission of the institution.”

Kate Siegfried, a senior media, rhetoric and culture and gender, women and sexuality studies double major, and Colleen Quilty, a senior gender, women and sexuality studies major, said they heard about the Speaker’s Corner through word of mouth.

“It’s important not to encourage restriction of any idea or thought to a place,” Quilty said.

Although there are no formal guidelines, students interested in demonstrating can clear their event with Johnson, a dean or someone from the PuLSE Office, Johnson said.

“(The Speaker’s Corner section) is vague,” Siegfried said. “Vague policies are the ones that can be the scariest. It’s really wishy-washy territory.”

The policy will undergo changes as it goes through various campus organizations like the Student Affairs Committee of Faculty Senate and Student Government Association, Johnson said.

“The thought is to work with faculty, staff and students to create something that we can all agree with, something that articulates the guidelines when it comes to gathering and organizing in a collegiate environment,” Johnson said. “We want to give students and others a road map of how to express themselves without them having to check off a list.”

Whatever is established will need to be privy to majority and minority opinions, Johnson said.

“Seeing any type of policy on free speech is alarming to me because that means there is going to be some kind of regulation or restriction of it,” Siegfried said.  “Free speech should inherently exist in our country.”

Quilty and Siegfried said they were concerned about what the ramifications of the Speaker’s Corner could have on campus.

“(Students) should not have to worry about speaking in a certain place,” Quilty said.

The university aims for an understanding of the speaker’s corner that everyone can agree on and clearly articulates the main points, Johnson said.

“(We want to make sure) that it’s fair and amiable for all types of parties,” Johnson said. “It will have to be dished out in an equitable type of manner.”

“It is more of a best practice than an anomaly,” Johnson said.

The main goal is to avoid situations that go wrong, Johnson said.

“We have been very fortunate where it has not been the case,” Johnson said. “We want to keep it that way.”