The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth is being singled out for its written policy that appears to limit student demonstrations to a specific grassy area on campus. The "Public Forum Use of University Facilities" policy also appears to require that students get permission from the university before holding a demonstration.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, that's unconstitutional. To highlight their concerns, the national group this week honored UMass Dartmouth with its dubious "Speech Code of the Month" award for December of 2019.

FIRE, a non-partisan organization that stands up for campus free speech, said in a statement that UMass Dartmouth must "fulfill its legal and moral obligations, and eliminate its unconstitutional free speech zone policy." They said that as a public university, UMass "isn't only encouraged to uphold free speech on campus, it's required to by law -- and not doing so can open the university up to lawsuits."

"The policy in question is due for updating as part of the regular policy review process, and the university is planning such a review in the coming months," wrote UMass Dartmouth Public Affairs Specialist Ryan C. Merrill. "The intent of the policy is to provide protesters with a safe, high visibility location that does not unlawfully impede the education of students or the business of the university while creating open communication between protesters and the institution should another location be preferred."

However, he suggested that the policy, as written, doesn't even seem to be enforced.

Merrill wrote that since the policy has been in effect, "we are not aware of a single protest that has been halted due to location, including several that have taken place outside the public forum space."

FIRE countered that even an unenforced policy can be invoked at any time depending upon the whim of the administration.

"UMass Dartmouth must set the record straight," wrote FIRE senior program manager Laura Beltz. "A policy like this, which may be lying dormant on the books today, can be brought up again tomorrow to restrict free speech."

FIRE said UMass Dartmouth's policy on "Public Forum Use of University Facilities" seems to contradict itself. One section requires that protesters must inform the university's Department of Public Safety at least 48 hours in advance of any demonstration, with information regarding the time, date, number of people involved, and a contact person. Yet the same document states elsewhere that students may exercise their right to assembly " without seeking sponsorship or permission from the university."

Beltz said such "vague and contradictory policies" leave too much power in the hands of administrators, leaving the door open to potential abuse.

In his statement, Miller said the campus public forum policy is up for review anyway. "The policy in question is due for updating as part of the regular policy review process, and the university is planning such a review in the coming months," Miller wrote.

Among its activities to defend free campus speech, FIRE has made an issue of such "free speech zones" on campuses across the country. Florida and South Dakota recently passed legislation banning campus free speech zones statewide.

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