Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Free-speech suit against ASU goes on despite new state law

Legal arguments continue in a First Amendment lawsuit against Arkansas State University even after a university attorney said Friday that the policy under challenge will be revised to comply with a newly passed law prohibiting "free speech zones" on college campuses.

The law addresses what are to be considered public forums on college campuses. Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday signed into law Senate Bill 156, which states that public colleges and universities "shall not create free speech zones or other designated outdoor areas of campus outside of which expressive activities are prohibited."

The law is to take effect 90 days after final adjournment of the legislative session, which is currently underway.

"We'll comply with it," said Brad Phelps, general counsel for the Arkansas State University System. "It will require some modifications and changes, and we will take those steps accordingly."

ASU now allows speeches and demonstrations in specified outdoor "free expression areas" between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. The university policy states that 72 hours' notice is needed for requests to use other campus areas for such activities.

The legal challenge to ASU comes from student Ashlyn Hoggard and a chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative political group.

Their lawsuit claims that in October 2017 an ASU official and a police officer ordered Hoggard and a representative of Turning Point USA, who had set up a recruiting table, to leave the campus's Heritage Plaza and stop speaking with students. The lawsuit states that a police officer "informed Ashlyn that she had violated the Student Conduct Code by engaging in speech outside of the speech zones."

The lawsuit alleges violation of the rights of freedom of speech and legal due process.

The university has said in court filings that plaza tables were reserved for registered student organizations and "specifically deny that all expressive activity on ASU's campus is limited to the Freedom of Expression Areas."

Tyson Langhofer, lead counsel for Hoggard and the Turning Point USA chapter, said the goal of the lawsuit "has always been to have the policy changed."

He said his clients are "open to discussing a settlement with them, absolutely." But he added that there are pending legal issues not affected by any future ASU policy changes.

"Even if they modified it now, there would still be a live controversy for the court to decide, which is the question of whether, when they applied that policy as it previously existed, did that violate Ms. Hoggard's constitutional rights?" said Langhofer. He said there are no plans to drop the lawsuit.


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