By Josh Kelety
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently took a stab at the Seattle Community College District’s attempts to rewrite free speech policies at college facilities by calling their amendments ‘unconstitutional’. In this ongoing negotiation between the district, faculty, and free speech advocates, the administration is once again running up against opposition for its consistent attempts to try and limit a basic constitutional right.
These moves by the administration were first initiated in response to Occupy Seattle’s encampment on Seattle Central’s campus, sending a clear message to the community that the suits up top were trying to squash similar future events of protest or civil disobedience from occurring on college property. It resulted in an uproar and the debate has been a tug-of-war ever since.
The in-question amendments pertain to Chapter 132F-142 of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC), which is a set of state rules and regulations that in turn dictate the district’s administrative conduct. While the policy tweaks have been toned down since the initial proposals of creating the dreaded ‘time limited campus free speech zones and ludicrous restrictions on the number of displayed signs/banners’, the compromise still requires that any first amendment activities be sponsored by a “college department, office, or officially charted student club”. In addition, all non-college groups before engaging in first amendment activities must, “upon request of the college, report to campus security to sign in and notify the college of the non college group’s presence on campus–.”
This is the language that the ACLU has beef with, due to its potentially restrictive and controlling nature.
The complaint was first made known in the form of an October 21st letter to the district from local ACLU lawyer La Rond Baker. An article that appeared in the Seattle Times reported Baker had written that the previously mentioned amendment “triggers constitutional concerns because it requires registration prior to engaging in the most basic and treasured form of protected political speech (i.e. flyering, handbilling, pamphleteering, proselytizing, etc).”
The afore mentioned “upon the request of the college,” tidbit was notable as well, implying that the administration can pick and choose who gets special restrictive treatment, decisions potentially based on the type of discourse. The Times reported that Baker called it “an unfettered grant of discretion that allows the college to arbitrarily determine which groups will be subjected to prior restraint.”
Despite Baker’s conveyed concerns, on the following day of October 22nd, the admins running a public hearing to receive community feedback on the amendments failed to disclose that a influential civil liberties organization such as the ACLU had contacted them about the unsavory nature of their activities. District Vice Chancellor Carin Weiss read the entire proposal and opened up the floor for public comments, her eyes flitting between the scattered attendees made up of faculty and student media. To her likely relief, only one person signed up to speak. Don Bissonnette, an ESL teacher at South Seattle Community College, took to the podium and said that he had no problem with the new amendment draft and that it “still allowed people to be loud.”
It seemed that there was approval on all fronts but the ACLU has dashed that misconception. Though seemingly innocent in its nature and vastly liberal compared to what was originally brought to the table, the language in Chapter 132F-142-040 leaves elbowroom for some less than ideal situations. It allows for college approved groups to gather freely, while non-approved groups must ‘check-in’ first, giving the school their phone numbers, group affiliation and personal addresses, while also allowing ample time for security services to grab their mace and batons and call their city affiliates in blue to the scene with minutes to spare.
The legislative changes don’t go up for a vote with the district Board of Trustees till December 5th, leaving a short amount of time for potential debate and discussion. While the district has acknowledged the letter following the Times article, a concrete response has yet to surface, though it will probably be something along the lines of maintaining campus security and ensuring uninterrupted class time.
However it again raises some questions about the motivations behind the amendment. Though gatherings such as the Occupy Seattle or faculty protests might be a hassle for admins, the allowance of such activities are a very necessary and vital component of any college institutional framework. Whether people like Vice Chancellor Carin Weiss or SCCC President Paul Killpatrick honestly think that limiting free speech will keep campuses safe, or, more villainously, want to maintain their vision of colleges being a nicely ordered factory line operation for churning out obedient minds to fit the modern American work place without any interruptions, their actions only tighten the noose that the administration seems to be slyly slipping over the necks of the Seattle Central Community. People have a right to make their voices heard, and in these times it’s more important than ever.
PDF versions of the WAC proposal can be found here.
Follow reporter Josh Kelety on Twitter @Josh_Kelety