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Students challenge universities’ first amendment limitations

The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” A law that Joshua Fox, among others on campus, wants to extend further by loosening the free speech codes on the University of New Hampshire campus.

Fox, a sophomore political science major and chair of Young Americans for Liberty in the state of New Hampshire, is currently petitioning the university to change several of its speech codes including part 23 of the Student Handbook which lays out policies that require permits for assemblies by students and non-students on campus.

Currently, if a group of political activists, no matter the size, wants to gather on campus, they must first be issued a permit by the UNH Police Department. Fox and the New Hampshire University System Student Board (USSB), chaired by UNH senior Lincoln Crutchfield, are looking to change these codes to eliminate the permit procedure, unless the assemblies include more than certain amount of people. Currently, the USSB is reviewing speech codes, with the help of the Administrative Board of the University System, to identify the appropriate laws, which they believe may need reform.

Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), rated UNH as Yellow out of a Green, Yellow, Red scale. The FIRE website defines Yellow as being, “institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” It highlighted specific codes including the Protest and Demonstration Policies from the UNH Student Handbook.

“We’re having this big fight for free speech on campus. You can easily see things happen at Berkeley University… We’re trying to change things so you can easily have controversial speakers on campus. We’re trying to make sure every student can have their voices heard… We’re having this huge fight to regain our first amendment rights on university campuses,” Fox said.

Fox organized a petition signing for free speech event on Feb. 23, in which he also handed out U.S. Constitution pamphlets to passersby. Though he didn’t obtain a permit, he did notify UNH Police Chief Paul Dean that this assembly would be happening.

In an email from Fox to Chief Dean, Fox said, “We will not block access to University of New Hampshire buildings or sidewalks, use amplified sound, impede vehicular or pedestrian traffic, or in any way disrupt the operations of campus or University of New Hampshire educational functions. Our signature-gathering is protected by the First Amendment. We plan to start on Feb. 23 at 1 p.m. outside of Dimond Library, as well as other areas on campus where we can engage in thoughtful dialogue with our fellow students.”

After multiple phone calls and email exchanges between the two of them, Chief Dean provided Fox with a permit for his assembly.

According to Crutchfield, progress has been made. At the last meeting of the Memorial Union Building Board of Governors, policy for tabling was changed so that it will no longer be “burdensome” and “restrictive,” according to Crutchfield. But as for the speech codes pertaining to the student handbook and the impact on the wider campus, Crutchfield said that the Student Board is still narrowing the exact policy changes that it will recommend to the Administrative Board.

Dean of Students Ted Kirkpatrick said that the University of New Hampshire administration, and President Mark Huddleston, are continued supporters of free speech. At the last UNH Open Forum, Huddleston even described himself as a “free speech absolutist.”

“Free speech is free speech, as long as there is no harm done to people, no injury. I think he’s [Huddleston] been very clear with colleagues, with the university, that he wants the university to be a place where free speech is a protected entitlement for all,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said he is working with the president’s office and the councilor’s office to craft some speech that would earn a Green light from FIRE. Kirkpatrick said the FIRE rating isn’t why they’re making changes, but agrees with its message. Kirkpatrick also said that universities must be a place where free speech is protected, and that he has never heard of a permit for any student being denied.

As the Student Board puts together its review, Fox said that he will continue to gather petitions for students and work with Crutchfield and the other groups involved to bring greater free speech to the campus. Fox said that by establishing a system where the students simply notify the university of assembling, rather than a formal permit process, free speech will be more widely protected at UNH.

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