Space and Free Expression Committee to Submit Policy Draft This Fall

Posted: July 8, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 8, 2010 at 8:07 am

By Ethan Vaughan

After working throughout the 2009-10 academic year to better define university free expression policy, the Speech and Free Expression Committee will have a draft for submission to the Board of Visitors and the Office of the President this fall.

“The draft form of the new policies should be ready for review in September,” says Gregg Toney, assistant vice president of Auxiliary Enterprises and a committee member.

“A presentation will be made to the Office of the President, and if there are no objections, the policies will be implemented.”

The committee was formed in the fall to address a combination of needs, including conflicting school policies and the fact that newer sections of the university, which did not exist at the time that many of the current rules were written, were in ambiguous legal territory.

“It was brought to my attention that our university has a number of policies regarding space and free expression,” says Peter Pober, professor of communication and chair of the Faculty Senate.

“They needed to be streamlined so that they were not in conflict with one another and they were not outdated. We needed them to reflect the campus, given the construction and different venues that have gone up.”

Central to the committee’s mission, say members, has been reconciling Mason’s status as an institution of higher learning with its ambition to respect and promote freedom of speech.

“Toward the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, the BOV decided, ‘Let’s sustain the educational mission of the university while encouraging freedom of expression,’” says Pober, who is the Faculty Senate representative to the board.

Reaching that goal requires delicacy and purpose, says Pober.

“There are questions about volume, loudness and the volume’s proximity to classrooms,” Pober notes. “What if it’s outside the classroom building itself but it’s still close? When is expression disruptive to education?”

Helping to resolve those questions was University Counsel Thomas Moncure.

“These issues have appeared periodically,” Moncure says. “You will occasionally have people come on to campus, and the question has always been the parameters, where and what they can do.”

Moncure says that the university can spark learning and free expression by recognizing that any speech regulation should have the purpose of protecting the school’s educational mission.

“There is no way, because of the breadth of speech, that you can write a rule that will cover every single situation,” Moncure explains.

“You just have to do the best you can. The BOV has designated certain areas and activities as being educationally critical, and collectively termed them the ‘educational enclave.’ Within those areas, the general public will have to accord themselves with university policy. Outside of those areas, assuming non-commercial use, one merely has to act lawfully.”

The “educational enclave” covers almost all buildings on campus but leaves open most outdoor areas.

“We’ve had a problem with the urban legend of ‘free speech zones,’” Moncure says. “If you’re outside of the enclave, it’s all a free speech zone.”

Moncure says that when the committee has finished its work, it should produce policies that will facilitate respectful and orderly free speech.

“My impression is that the BOV’s goal is to permit as much freedom of expression as you possibly can while recognizing at the end of the day that this is an educational institution,” Moncure says.

“The question isn’t ‘How do we restrict things?’ but ‘How do we open things up as much as reasonably possible?’”

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