During the 2014 Virginia General Assembly Session, a representative from the Virginia House of Delegates aims to amend a section of state Law that could affect public university students’ right to free speech while on campus property.
House Bill 258, filed on Jan. 8, forbids public universities and college from restricting the time, place and manner of a student’s speech that takes place in the outdoor areas of the school campus. It states students’ speech is protected by the First Amendment.
However, the bill also says that if the restrictions are justified, reasonable, serve a significant governmental interest and leave open other ways for the student to spread their message, then the restrictions are legitimate.
The bill is sponsored by delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R-31). As of press time, Lingamfelter could not be reached for comment.
International studies major Camila Borja said she agrees with the Bill and hopes it is passed by the House of Delegates.
Borja is a member of the student activist group, the Living Wage Campaign at VCU, an organization that frequently hosts public demonstration events at VCU and in Richmond.
“I personally think that it sounds like a great idea. VCU is a public institution … I don’t see why our rights are limited simply by the fact that we are students,” Borja said. “Freedom of speech is crucial for a healthy campus, where everyone’s voice is valued no matter how different their perspective.”
Kal Molinet, a criminal justice major, holds a different opinion than Borja. Molinet said he agrees with the idea of students’ right to free speech but he disagrees that the law or the Constitution can preserve students’ rights.
Molinet is known for regularly appearing at the VCU Compass Plaza with signs reffering to Anarchy that read ‘Ask Me Why Voting Is Immoral” and ‘Ask Me How The Government Is Immoral.’
“I would say that a piece of parchment has no magical powers to protect you from those who seek to infringe on your freedom,” Molinet said.
On Oct. 8 of last year, Molinet was approached by a VCU Police officer for being four feet from the “Free Speech Zone” in the Compass and for not asking the University Student Commons and Activities Administration for permission to demonstrate at the Compass.
“When I pressed for more information, (the officer) revealed that he himself called the University Student Commons & Activities to verify if I had their permission to stand where I was,” Molinet said. “Upon finding out that I did not ask for permission to exercise my freedom of speech, he promptly took it upon himself to attempt to intimidate me into leaving.”
The altercation ended when Molinet called the USC&A administration to prove to the officer that, while Molinet, did not have permission from the USC&A and was not inside a “preferred location” designated by the USC&A, he was still demonstrating in an orderly manner that had no impact to university operations or classes, as written in the USC&A guidelines for demonstrations on campus.
The USC&A representative on the phone gave Molinet permission to continue demonstrating in the Compass, he said.
“That was my first run-in with the VCU harassment squad,” Molinet said, referring to the VCU Police Department. “I now keep a copy of the demonstrations guidelines on my person every time I go out to the Compass just in case. I don’t doubt though that in the near future, a secret ‘revision’ of the rules will be taking place.”
Ashley Akers, the coordinator of events and meetings for the USC&A, said Molinet has always followed the guidelines given by the USC&A.
“There is no designated ‘Free Speech Zone’ in VCU, everywhere is a ‘Free Speech Zone,’” Akers said. “We just have locations where we recommend demonstrators to demonstrate … even if a student does not ask us for permission to demonstrate, as long as they are doing it in a manner that does not hold up school operations and classes, they are free to express themselves and speak their mind.”
Akers said the VCU Police should only be notified if the demonstration holds up university operations and classes or if the demonstration starts showing signs of becoming violent and destructive.
“There have been times, especially recently, when preachers would come to the Compass, sometimes without us knowing about it, to say their side of a controversial issue in ways that attract a crowd of students,” Akers said. “We usually have police officers arrive to observe the demonstration in case things heat up too much between the preachers and the students.”
Akers said that for larger demonstrations it is recommended organizers of the demonstration to coordinate with and make their presence known by the USC&A.
“My office is here to help the students,” Akers said. “We want them to be able to speak their minds freely … but we also want these kinds of events to be organized, peaceful and not hindering the students from attending their classes and the faculty and staff from doing their jobs.”
Like Borja, Akers also supports Lingamfelter’s bill. She said she hopes it passes the House of Delegates because she thinks students’ free speech is an important part of any public university.