COLLEGE PARK – The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union plans to file a lawsuit against the University of Maryland, College Park, alleging the institution’s policy of limiting public speaking to specified areas violates the First Amendment.
The announcement of the suit was made at the university Wednesday at a speech by the ACLU’s national director, Anthony Romero, on how civil liberties have been affected by last year’s terrorist attacks.
Director of University Relations George Cathcart said he is unaware of any ACLU lawsuit against the university.
Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU’s Maryland chapter, said the university bans public speaking on campus except in four designated areas outside the Student Union.
“We were toying with the idea of getting me arrested by handing out fliers in places I’m not supposed to. I hate rules — I like to break them,” Romero said in the opening of his speech.
The university also limits speakers who are not sponsored by a specific university department or student group to a space at the amphitheatre outside the Student Union. Distribution of literature is permitted only on the sidewalks surrounding the union.
The policy also requires that: “Persons wishing to engage in public speaking or to distribute literature are required to reserve space by registering in advance with the Campus Reservations Office.”
“On its face, the policy applies to any speech or literature distribution that is not sponsored by the university or a campus organization. In practice, campus officials apply the policy to student organizations as well,” according to the ACLU of Maryland’s fall newsletter.
The newsletter cited an incident from the spring when campus security stopped followers of political activist Lyndon LaRouche from passing out literature on campus sidewalks away from the Student Union. The ACLU of Maryland sent a letter to the campus attorney asking the university to change its policy.
In October, Tiffany Thompson, a Maryland junior, was involved with a march across campus to protest oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She got halfway to her destination before being stopped by police, who broke up the march because the group didn’t have a university protest. She said she was stopped even though she had permission from the groundskeeper to be at the field where the march ended.
Thompson, however, doesn’t believe her rights to free speech and assembly were violated.
“This is a university; people are here to learn. If I’m in class and people are knocking on the windows and screaming, I’d be agitated. I could have dug a little deeper and gotten a permit, so, no, I don’t think it’s an infringement of my rights,” she said.