Ohio University Corrects Policy Limiting Students’ Free Speech
Ohio University has clarified a policy used to restrict students’ free speech after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) informed the school its application violated the First Amendment. Before FIRE intervened on behalf of student Jillyann Burns, Ohio University forbade students from hanging political posters until 14 days prior to an election – and required university approval even during that period.
Burns, a freshman journalism major and member of the Ohio University College Libertarians, hung a poster promoting libertarian policies on the door of her James Hall dorm room in September. The poster, advertising the Ohio University College Libertarians, presciently stated “enemies of free speech will remove this flier.”
On September 6, James Hall residential assistant Andrea Stacho sent an email informing residents of school policy requiring that “if you want to hang something in the hallway you have to get [Residential Coordinator] Micah [McCarey]s permission first,” adding that “due to the upcoming election I wanted everyone to know that NO political posters/flyers should be hung in the hallways or on you [sic] door until 14 days before the actual election & with the 1st condition satisfied.”
A September 17 room inspection conducted by McCarey on behalf of the Division of Student Affairs and the universitys Environmental Health & Safety Department found Burns in violation of a rule in the Ohio University Student Handbook stating that “political posters not [be] displayed outside room until within 14 days of election date, as directed by the university’s political campaign policy.”
As FIRE reported, “OU’s residence hall policies state that this 14-day window was dictated by OU’s ‘political campaign policy,’ though neither FIRE nor Burns could find any such policy in existence. The inspection form also noted that failure to remove the poster within 48 hours could result in referral to OU’s disciplinary system. Burns responded by taping a sheet of paper with the message ‘Censored until further notice’ over the flyer.”
In an interview with Media Trackers, Ohio University Vice President of Student Affairs Ryan Lombardi confirmed that the “political campaign policy” referenced does not exist, and that university officials will be informally reviewing the university’s rules for similar errors.
Lombardi went onto state that even if the university had a political campaign policy, it would only apply to advertisements for Student Senate races.
On September 28, FIRE wrote to Ohio University President Roderick McDavis to warn him the university was violating students’ First Amendment rights by only allowing political posters to be displayed at certain times. McCarey emailed Burns on October 1 to inform her ”most flier postings, including the political flier that you posted on your door, ARE INDEED allowed on the outside residents [sic] your room door, which is a location that I previously understood as constituting public space subject to certain regulations.”
McCarey added that Ohio University “will work to clarify posting policies immediately,” as university spokeswoman Katie Quaranta told student newspaper The Post the policy relates to posting signs in common areas, and is not related to local, state or national elections” and “does not apply to the exterior of a student’s room door.”
Although FIRE has identified other Ohio University policies it considers to be in conflict with the First Amendment, Lombardi stated that the university has no plans to review its code of conduct for other issues in respone to the incident involving Burns. Lombardi said the university “is always reviewing its policies” on an informal basis, as advised by the university’s legal advisers.