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Free Speech Battle Over Protests Looming at Seattle Colleges

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A major battle over free speech is being waged on local college campuses in Seattle. The Seattle Community College District Board of Trustees wants to revise the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) for Seattle colleges. The district is proposing new rules that would regulate protests on all three of the city's state funded community college campuses.

Organizations opposed to the board's proposals include the ACLU, the Seattle chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, student councils at all three of the district's colleges, and Occupy Seattle.

About a hundred Occupy Seattle participants set up camp at Seattle Central Community College last fall after being pushed out of Westlake Park by police. SCCC president Paul Kilpatrick and the school administration went to court to evict the demonstrators from the campus, and on December 10, 2011, the occupiers were forced to leave. A Thurston County Superior Court judge has allowed the college to impose new rules which prohibit camping on the campus, on an "emergency" basis.

Prior to this ruling, there had been no rules regulating encampments on state college campuses in the state of Washington.

Among other proposals, the new set of rules would:
-restrict the size of protest signs to a maximum of 3 feet by 5 feet
-impose a limit of one sign per person.
-place restrictions on where protests can take place and how long they can last. Student groups would be forced to end their demonstrations after eight hours, whereas off-campus organizations like Occupy Seattle would only be allowed to rally for five hours at a time.
-prohibit protests outside of designated "free speech zones" on campus
-require non-student groups to notify the college 24 hours in advance of demonstrations.

Protesters who violate the rules could be arrested by Seattle police and charged with trespassing.

At the first board hearing on Tuesday March 27, Karen Strickland, president of the Seattle chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said that if the changes are adopted, her organization's march banner will not be allowed on campus.

"Some people's views have not been appreciated," she told them. "Free speech, just like access to public higher education, is a core part of democracy. And that's what we need to fight for! Right now in our country there are all kinds of threats to democracy."

Although the school district claims that the process of adopting new rules actually began in 2010, Occupy Seattle activists have interpreted the proposed rule changes as a direct response to their occupation of the college. They claim that the district is placing a prior restraint on any future protest activity at the school.

Washington State law requires an open public comment period before any new state college rules can be established. In compliance with this requirement, the SCCD Board of Trustees held a public hearing on March 27. Due to the overwhelming community response to these proposed rule changes, the school district scheduled another hearing a week later.

On April 5, about 200 people participated in the second hearing held at the Broadway Performance Hall on the campus of Seattle Central Community College. Seattle Community College District Vice Chancellor Carin Weiss was "the presiding official over the proceedings." SCCC president Paul Kilpatrick was in attendance, along with a representative from the Washington State Attorney General's Office, Derek Edwards.

Weiss opened the hearing by stating that the purpose for the new rules is "to establish reasonable controls on demonstrations at the college campuses."

She asserted the Board of Trustees is attempting to propose rules which will maintain a balance between the rights of people to protest and the needs of the administration to limit disruptions to the educational process.

LaRond Baker from the Washington ACLU spoke against the proposed rules, citing limitations on the rights to freedom of speech and assembly that are protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

"We are opposed to the rules on several grounds and we believe they will not be upheld by the courts," she said.

The ACLU maintains that any rule which requires non-student groups to notify the college 24 hours in advance of protests is illegal and would be considered 'prior restraint' under the Washington State Constitution.

Baker also criticized a proposed prohibition on the distribution of potentially "libelous" material on campus. She described the language of the proposed school district rule as "vague" and warned that under the board's proposal, "persons passing out handbills on campus could be charged with a criminal offense."

She concluded her public testimony with the following statement: "The Washington ACLU is opposed to these new rule changes and we ask the Board of Trustees to withdraw their proposal."

Seattle Central Community College staff member Kelly McHenry told SCCC President Paul Kilpatrick, "As a college librarian, I love the free exchange of ideas. Because of this, I have to stand up against anything that infringes on the First Amendment."

McHenry opposes the regulation of demonstrations because she believes colleges and universities should encourage rather than limit public discussion.

"Allowing for free expression is part of the educational process," she argued. "Are you also going to limit what films students should see and what books they can read?"

Zack Robertson, head of the SCCC student government, read a statement to the board of trustees:

"We oppose the new rules because we find them unnecessary. Regulations already exist that prohibit disruptions of classrooms, vandalism, etcetera. Why do we need new rules when these issues have already been addressed?"

Robertson also opposed the idea of 'free speech zones'.

"We have measured the area on campus that is being designated for this purpose ," he said, "and found it to be less than 400 square feet. It's about the size of a small one bedroom apartment. That is clearly unacceptable."

One eloquent statement came from Sange, a 20 year old immigrant from Gambia who is enrolled at Seattle Central Community College.

"You may have forgotten why people from around the world come to this country," he said. "Where I lived we had no protections on our freedom, so let me say something to you."

Sange then proceeded to read the Declaration of Independence ."We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he recited.

When he was finished reading he received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Broadway Performance Hall.

Although hundreds of people have participated in the public hearings, no one has spoken in favor of the new college district rules.

A board of trustees meeting is scheduled for April 12 to access the results of the public comment period. Despite the community outcry, school district officials could vote to approve the proposals on that date. There is nothing in the state law that requires the board to follow all public recommendations. Student groups say they will picket the meeting if they are not allowed to participate in the next step of the decision making process.

According to the state law governing changes to the WAC rules, if the community college district board decides to make significant changes to their original proposal, another series of public hearings will be required to provide for more public comment.

After the college school district hearing on April 5, one anonymous Occupy Seattle activist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask addressed a large crowd of students and teachers outside the building.

"If they approve these new restrictions on our freedom of speech and assembly," he said, "We will have to be ready to immediately challenge the rules by breaking them. We need hundreds of people on campus holding two signs or standing outside of the designated protest areas. We can't let them take away our First Amendment rights! I'm willing to go to jail to defend my freedom of speech! Are you?"