Univ. of Cincinnati Wrongly Barred Students from Passing Right-to-Work Petitions on Campus, Federal Judge Says

By Kendra Alleyne | June 20, 2012 | 10:55 AM EDT

(Image courtesy of University of Cincinnati)

(CNSNews.com) - A federal judge in Cincinnati has ruled that the University of Cincinnati (UC) violated the First Amendment rights of students when the university barred a conservative student group from gathering signatures on campus for a statewide ballot initiative to support the right-to-work in Ohio.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black ruled unconstitutional regulations set in place by the university that had prohibited the students from collecting signatures on campus, had required them to register for up to 15 days before engaging in political speech, and threatened them with arrest for violation of the rules.

In his ruling, Judge Black said: “It is simply unfathomable that a UC student needs to give the university advanced notice of an intent to gather signatures for a ballot initiative. There is no danger to public order arising out of students walking around campus with clipboards seeking signatures.”

The student group, Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), had filed the lawsuit back in February, after university officials threatened to arrest the students if they continued to try and collect signatures for the Ohio Workplace Freedom Amendment on campus.

YAL is a national student group associated with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, which represented YAL in court free of charge, praised the judge’s decision.

“UC mistakenly seeks to advance its mission of public education by shielding it's students from actual education on public policy issues that affect all Ohioans,” the Ohio-based legal group said.

“Fortunately, the First Amendment allows us to protect the education of UC students from their educators; it further protects the right of students to calmly address facts and arguments that UC would rather suppress, and to do so without prior permission."

According to the 1851 Center, because Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine chose to hire a private law firm to represent the state university in the case, the Cincinnati students “endured four months of procedural tactics, harassing depositions, and frivolous daily letters by (the university’s) attorneys.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization whose mission is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities,” named the University of Cincinnati the “worst in the nation,” highlighting it’s Free Speech Area policy which limited free speech to a specific part of the campus.

FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley told CNSNews.com that the regulations imposed by the University of Cincinnati were not only unconstitutionally strict, they were confusing as well.

“Not only did they limit free speech to one percent of their campus, but they also demanded huge amounts of time in advance before you could even take advantage of that free speech zone or your free speech rights,” Shibley said.

“On top of that, they actually also had confusing regulations as to how far in advance you had to give the university notice. One regulation said 5 days or 15 days, depending, another one just plain old said 10 days, and between the vagueness and, frankly, incomprehensible nature of their regulations and how strict they all were, that definitely made Cincinnati the top of our list when it came to free speech policies.”

Shibley went on to elaborate why so many public colleges have strict rules regulating the First Amendment rights of students.

“When they make these regulations they are not thinking about their responsibility to the Constitution, what they’re thinking about is trying to make sure there is as little dissent or disruption on campus that they can muster and so various universities will try, more or less, to clamp down on those policies,” Shibley said.

University of Cincinnati spokeswoman M.B. Reilly, meanwhile, told the Associated Press, “We are analyzing our options at this time.”

In addition to its ruling, the court also ordered that the university change its policies concerning speech restrictions on campus and institute “more narrowly tailored regulations that regulate student expressive activities,” only as are necessary to serve ‘a compelling government interest.”

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