FAIRFAX, Va., November 17, 2005—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is challenging unconstitutional policies at George Mason University (GMU). Earlier this fall, such policies led to the arrest of a GMU student who was protesting military recruiters on its Northern Virginia campus.
“GMU’s unconstitutional policies make it no surprise that a peaceful student protestor was arrested,” remarked FIRE President David French. “The distribution of posters, handbills, and newspapers was critical to our nation’s fight for independence. It is a shame that GMU, a public university named for one of America’s founders, restricts the right to do the very same thing.”
On September 29, GMU student and Air Force veteran Tariq Khan protested military recruiters on campus by silently standing near their table with a “Recruiters Lie” sign taped to his chest and passing out handbills. According to witnesses, a student assaulted Khan and took his sign within less than 30 minutes. Yet the police arrested Khan, not the other students involved in the ensuing fracas, allegedly because he had violated GMU Policy 1110. The ACLU of Virginia came to Khan’s legal aid, and FIRE discovered that GMU maintains several unconstitutional policies limiting freedom of expression.
On October 27, FIRE wrote GMU President Alan G. Merten, asking him to conform GMU’s policies to the Constitution. As FIRE pointed out, Policy 1110 bans on-campus distribution of newspapers that are “inconsistent with the mission of the University” and subjects all newspaper distribution on campus to prior administrative review—a clear violation of the First Amendment right to dissent. GMU’s “Poster Posting Policy” also stipulates that if a student engages in “distribution of flyers/leaflets without prior approval,” the student will be considered to be “littering.” This policy gives administrators unfettered discretion to approve or disapprove of posters or leaflets, violates clear Supreme Court precedent, and leaves the door wide open for arbitrary censorship.
“Neither GMU nor any other public university should be in the business of dictating what kinds of handbills, flyers, or newspapers its students may hand out,” stated FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Only by enforcing such unconstitutional rules could GMU arrest Khan rather than the people who assaulted him.”
GMU responded to FIRE with a brief November 2 letter, saying that it has “launched a review of all of its policies on the use of public space” on campus and that a “faculty led committee” will recommend changes. And on November 14, the criminal charges against Khan were dropped. However, GMU’s letter specified no deadline for the committee to make its policy changes, nor did it address FIRE’s concerns about the unconstitutionality of its current policies.
“GMU would be well served to move quickly to rewrite its unlawful policies restricting student expression,” noted FIRE’s French. “Every day that GMU maintains these policies, it infringes on students’ fundamental rights.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at George Mason University can be viewed at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws/gmu.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan G. Merten, President, George Mason University: 703-993-8700; email@example.com