The free speech threshold at FGCU
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 23:03
Micah Armstrong paces nervously back and forth in the courtyard.
Beneath the January sun, beads of sweat collect on the face of the traveling preacher. Clutching his Bible and a gallon of water in his right hand; Armstrong continues his anti-gay rant.
A growing crowd of 75 Florida Gulf Coast University students forms a semi-circle around him. Tensions are mounting.
“You’re going to go to the same hell as Hitler,” Armstrong yells, thrusting his index finger into Julian Montalvo’s face.
The FGCU student doesn’t back down. Wearing a gay-pride flag as a cape and holding a sign that reads, “Please excuse the ignorance,” Montalvo defends himself.
This display was typical of the antics that ensue when Armstrong, known as the sobriquet “Brother Micah,” demonstrates on a college campus.
On that day in the courtyard, the students weren’t wrong. But neither was Armstrong. Both parties were exercising their First Amendment rights at FGCU.
Free Speech Myth
Students are often under the impression FGCU has a free-speech zone, located on the library lawn. Susan Evans, FGCU’s vice president and chief of staff, refutes that myth. Evans and Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Rollo say all of FGCU is a free-speech zone.
“Most campuses have a place that people gravitate to,” Rollo said. “Everybody at some point goes through (the library lawn). It’s just where the people are and you go where the people are.”
Unaffiliated groups are allowed to demonstrate at FGCU since it is a public university. But they have some restrictions. They must make a request to showcase their causes.
Last year, four unaffiliated groups, Reform America, Lifeline Family Center, The Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and Created Equal (who will return to FGCU this March) made requests to demonstrate at FGCU.
These groups are all pro-life organizations. Each association explains on the campus reservation form that during their time on campus they will display graphic images of fetuses before and after an abortion.
However graphic the images might be, this display is still in compliance with University policy.
“As a public university, FGCU strongly encourages free speech and the free exchange of ideas in a collegial, safe and civil manner that respects the University’s normal operation for education and campus life,” Evans said.
Many demonstrators on campus use amplified sound. For instance, many fraternities and sororities use amplified sound to play music when they setup tables around campus. Just like Greek Life, unaffiliated groups are also entitled to project what they are saying.
In situations where the amplified sound is too loud, the University will step in to assess the noise level and has the right to require the party to lower or cease the amplified sound. Rollo explained FGCU has no problem stepping in if a demonstrator becomes too loud.
“If they get to be so loud it interferes with offices functioning or people doing their work, we’ll ask them to turn it down, and if necessary, to turn it off and if necessary, to leave. But people are usually cooperative,” he said.
Candidates for the Student Government elections converged on the lawn this week to spout their campaign messages.
However, the rules are different for inside campus buildings, according to FGCU regulations.
FGCU’s Buildings: Off Limits
Earlier this week, 40 Florida Atlantic University students gathered in front of the office of the school’s president, Mary Jane Saunders, to protest a $6 million dollar donation from GEO Group. The school would name its football stadium after the private prison corporation.
This would not be tolerated at FGCU.
“The University’s ‘Public Expression and Assembly Regulations’ prohibits demonstrations inside buildings,” Evans said.
Evans explains this point using President Wilson Bradshaw’s office as an example. She says if a student wants to protest Bradshaw’s office, they are allowed to protest outside the building but not immediately outside the president’s office.
While the school is allowed to regulate demonstrations inside buildings, it isn’t always the solution to maintaining the peace.
Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, former president of the American Bar Association and current professor of law at Florida State University, explains how this can sometimes backfire for a school.
“(Including free speech inside campus buildings) is the common sense thing to do,” D’Alemberte said. “Restrictions typically cause people to get angry and cause more problems than if they allowed the speech in the first place.”