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Code Yellow: Speech policy at Kutztown University allows campus administrators to assign locations for free speech use

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Kutztown University of Pennsylvania has earned a yellow speech code rating due to a number of policies deemed by to be in violation of students' First Amendment rights. (Facebook)

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania holds a yellow light speech code rating, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's campus free speech rating system.

According to FIRE, “Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

Kutztown has earned this rating due to a number of policies deemed by FIRE to be in violation of students’ First Amendment rights – the most heinous of which places obstacles in the way of students who want to exercise their right to peacefully assemble.

For example, Kutztown’s Solicitation and Public Demonstration policy allows the university to determine where student organizations can recruit, pass out information, and promote events. Furthermore, it ensures that the administration is free to apply this rule as it sees fit.

“The Director of Public Safety and Police Services, together with the Director for Student Involvement, will determine where the solicitation may occur. Exceptions to this requirement can only be made by the President of the University or designee,” the policy states.

“I think the most troubling restrictions are all the hoops we are supposed to go through to be able to hold demonstrations on campus. To even just pass out Constitutions we have to talk to the Director of Public Safety and the Director Student Involvement,” Young Americans for Liberty Pennsylvania State Chairperson Liz Spayd told Red Alert Politics. “The university has made it very clear to me that they will never shut down an event, but they will also not allow me to be involved with changes to speech codes.”

Current Kutztown policies place heavy restrictions on student’s rights to peacefully assemble yet, administrators apparently have little interest in enforcing their own policies. Despite their inaction, they have made it clear that they are not willing to strike down current policies in exchange for ones that adhere to the First Amendment.

Kutztown Communications Director Dave Johnson told Red Alert Politics in an email: “We ask for notice so that we can schedule enough public safety officers on campus to keep everyone safe, demonstrators and our campus community. It is rare we receive any notice and no one has been ever been penalized for that. The only policy we have on the location of demonstrations is that they cannot interfere with classes. We ask that groups do not gather outside of an academic building during classes. They are welcome in any other public areas of the campus.”

Despite Kutztown’s laissez-faire attitude, its policies are susceptible to administrative abuse, which can in turn greatly restrict students’ First Amendment rights. A policy which restricts free speech at face value, yet isn’t enforced leaves students uncertain about their rights. Furthermore, if the policy isn’t being used, it begs the question: why have the policy at all?

“The argument that we always hear for increased regulations, whether it be on the Hill or at the campus level, always stems from ‘a necessity to keep the peace,’” YAL Director of Free Speech Alexander Staudt told Red Alert Politics. “This is no different than any time you hear a politician say, ‘think of the children!’ These are maturing adults on college campuses and administrators should give the benefit of the doubt to students instead of demanding they obtain permission in order to ensure their First Amendment rights are being respected.”

Kutztown speech policies used to be even vaguer yet restricting. In the summer of 2017, Kutztown mended their chalking policies to stop censoring student speech based on “content” after an employee was caught erasing a student group’s pro-life chalk messages. School policy broadly permitted chalking on “sidewalks and other uncovered walkways,” but imposed restrictions on content that was “incompatible with the University’s Statement on Non-Discrimination.” The policy was revised to eliminate unconstitutional content-based restrictions after Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to school administrators.

Tyler Cochran studies Political Science and Religion at Missouri State University. He is a Media Ambassador and Missouri State Chair for Young Americans for Liberty.