NIC mulls free speech policy

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COEUR d'ALENE - A policy that would regulate free speech activities on the North Idaho College campus is being considered for adoption by the college's board of trustees.

Sheldon Nord, NIC's vice president for Student Services, will ask trustees to approve a "Time, Place, and Manner Policy" at the board's monthly meeting taking place on campus at 6 p.m. today.

The protest held on NIC grounds last fall by members of Westboro Baptist Church highlighted the college's lack of such a policy, Nord told The Press.

"The intent is to ensure that our campus maintains a safe and productive learning environment while allowing for the free exchange of ideas," wrote Nord, in an email.

The proposed policy has already been approved by members of NIC's upper-level administration, the college senate, and NIC's attorney.

In his email, Nord acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.

"This guarantee generally safeguards the right of individuals to express themselves without governmental restraint," Nord wrote. "Nevertheless, the free speech clause of the First Amendment is not absolute. It has never been interpreted to guarantee all forms of speech without any restraint whatsoever."

Supreme Court rulings reflect that government agencies may place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of individual expression, he wrote.

"Before the Westboro Baptist visit, what we discovered is that most colleges and universities now have free speech zones, and NIC did not have a policy," said retired NIC instructor and local civil rights activist, Tony Stewart.

Free speech zone policies must be "content neutral," Stewart said.

There are, he said, two constitutional amendments that must be considered: the first amendment right to free speech, and the 14th amendment's right to equal protection under the law.

"How you balance those two in a democracy is really important," Stewart said. "You have to craft policies in a way where you don't infringe upon free speech during peaceful assembly, and you protect peoples' right to freedom from physical threats and violence."

"Most colleges and universities do have this kind of policy," he said.

Barbara Chamberlain, director of public affairs at Washington State University Spokane, said her campus has a similar policy in place.

"We designate a specific location for something that's going to attract a large group of people," Chamberlain said.

It's the same place for every type of group, Chamberlain said, and does not discriminate based on the content.

"It's not meant to infringe on the free speech rights of anyone, but to balance the interests of tuition-paying students with those rights," Chamberlain said.

If approved, NIC's policy will prohibit "leafleting, picketing, speech-making, demonstration, petition circulation, posting signs, and similar speech-related activities" if those activities:

* impede driving or walking on campus;

* disrupt regular or authorized activities on NIC's grounds of facilities including classrooms, offices and laboratories;

* are conducted within 20 feet of all exits, entrances, staircases, parking lots and roadways;

* are conducted at a volume that disrupts the normal use of classrooms, offices and labs.

The policy gives the college's vice president for Resource Management the authority to designate a portion of the campus, and the time of day, when the grounds are not available for speech activities in order to meet traffic, emergency access and public transit needs.

Demonstrators will be required to give the campus safety department 48-hour notice prior to picketing or other activities.

Violators of the policy, if they are staff or students, would be subject to campus disciplinary proceedings. Others would be asked to leave campus, and would be subject to arrest for criminal trespass, if they failed to leave.

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