Aug 302011
Authors: Andrew Carrera

As Marie Kendall trekked across CSU’s Lory Student Center Plaza on Monday she was told in passing that her existence is doomed.

“There was one guy who had this big sign that was like, ‘Smokers, God judges you!’” said the junior anthropology major. “I was like, okay, s***! I’m going to hell!”

Shes was later informed by followers of Hindu teacher, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, that her life has all the necessary ingredients for eternal happiness.

“I don’t mind being approached,” she said. “It’s really interesting. Sometimes it can be overbearing, but everyone’s living their own lives.”

Whether it’s Greenpeace talking to passers-by about the environment, the American Civil Liberties Union touting the importance of human rights, or religious teachers spreading the word of their god, rights to free speech at CSU are flexed daily.

“I think that as a public university, we have an obligation to ensure that peaceful assembly occurs,” said Michael Ellis, assistant vice president for student affairs and executive director of the LSC.
But how the university applies such beliefs on campus is a different matter.

“There will always be censorship battles, there will always be an urge on the part of some officials to squelch speech that they don’t like, often with good intentions,” said David Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center, a freedom of speech think-tank in Washington, D.C., and author of “Let the Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools.”
“Free-speech battles are alive and well on college campuses,” Hudson said.

So how does CSU navigate complex questions about how to implement the First Amendment?

If you’re reserving space on the LSC Plaza, you need to register with CSU officials.

But under certain circumstances, organizations or individuals are allowed to speak about their beliefs around campus without giving prior notice to authorities.

“This happens every day,” Ellis said.

Ultimately, the decision of who to allow on campus is determined by the university’s legal counsel.

CSU attorneys are called in on a case-by-case basis to assess the risks associated with allowing groups to speak.

“To my knowledge, we’ve not rejected a group,” Ellis said. “And I’ve been here for 13 years.”

By comparison, CU – Boulder, a committee made up of students, staff and faculty determines which organizations can hold demonstrations on their campus, said Carlos Garcia, director of the university’s Memorial Center.

You can’t disrupt campus activities.

If a group wants to shout their beliefs through a megaphone, Ellis said, they couldn’t do so in a way that would interrupt a nearby lecture.

“Amplified sound is permitted in designated areas within the LSC with prior approval of LSC Event Planning Services,” reads CSU’s peaceful assembly policy. “(Violations) may result in the cancellation of the sound amplification portion of the event.”

Demonstrations could also be considered disruptive if they block the way to class, and unreasonably burden students, faculty and staff in the process.

If your speech advocates harm, it’s unprotected.

“There have been occasions where students have been concerned about a demonstration, but it hasn’t come down to speech being threatening to an individual,” Ellis said. “At the point that a group is threatening to harm an individual, that’s unprotected.”

Unless an organization’s speech crosses this line, however, even the edgiest messages can be shared at CSU,

The controversial Justice for All, a national organization calling for the end of all abortions, came to campus in September 2010 and displayed 25-foot-tall images of aborted human fetuses in the LSC Plaza.

“If you don’t like it, avert your eyes. Counter it with good expression. But a sign under no circumstances is threatening,” Hudson said.

Senior Reporter Andrew Carrera can be reached at

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