Safety or censorship? Exploring the ‘free speech zones’ on Penn State's campus

Safety or censorship? Exploring the ‘free speech zones’ on Penn State's campus

Twenty years ago, Penn State implemented a policy that would alter student and community expression on campus for years to come.

And 20 years later, the popularly dubbed “free speech zones” are still disputed on campus.

In spring 1999 , Penn State implemented “outdoor areas for expressive activities.” Essentially, the regulation only allows student, faculty and community organizations to demonstrate or protest in 12 designated areas on campus. Groups that demonstrate in areas outside of the designated zones risk being removed, per the university’s policy AD51.

Gary Cattell, known to students as the Willard Preacher, is no stranger to the zones. He said he doesn’t agree with them and thinks anyone should be able to speak or protest anywhere outside as long as they’re not interrupting classes.

“If you go and ask [the university] ‘Where can I speak?’ [the university] will funnel you into one of these free speech zones, as if they exist,” he said, “which I think is a little deceptive.”

There are currently 12 zones on campus: Old Main Patio; Allen Street Gate Plaza; Willard Building patio area between Willard and Obelisk; Palmer Art Museum Plaza; the northwest corner of Shortlidge Road and College Avenue; Fisher Plaza; IST Plaza; the Pattee Library Mall entrance plaza; HUB-Robeson Center rear sidewalk pad; which is different from the HUB Patio); the HUB Lawn; the Osmond Fountain area (after 5 p.m.); and the space underneath the Willaman Gateway to the Life Sciences.

Protest outside HUB-Robeson Center

A large crowd gathers around a protest led by the original Willard Preacher, Clarence Cope outside HUB-Robeson Center on Tuesday April 9, 2019.

In any of these places, students and student organizations are free to host protests or demonstrations, provided they follow the set guidelines.

The rule only applies to groups of 10 or more people. An individual is free to preach, protest or demonstrate wherever they’d like.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said it is not the rule of the university to shield people from ideas they find “unwelcome or disagreeable.”

“But it is the role of the university to help maintain a safe climate and to reasonably enable the time, place and manner of expression on university property,” Powers said via email.

Attempting to take ‘Willard’ out of the preacher

When these zones were first created, the area outside of the Willard Building was not one of them. This presented a problem for Cattell.

Cattell said he was approached in spring 1999 when the zones were created, and asked to leave. After refusing several times, Cattell said the police got involved.

Still, he refused to move.

On April 29, 1999, the Collegian published an article about Cattell “digressing from his usual sermons” to talk about free speech.

“The final day that semester, the administration came out and we agreed that we would put this whole thing on hold over the summer,” Cattell said in recollection. “I’d check out my rights, they’d figure out what they were doing, and we’d get back to it in the fall.”

Cattell gathered a free speech group together to take the university to federal court. He believed the school had too many public funds to be restricting where an individual could speak.

Teacher vs Preacher

Sociology professor Sam Richards debates Gary Cattell, also known as the “Willard Preacher”, at Forum Building on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

“Their excuse was I was interrupting classes, which of course these windows are always closed — nobody had ever complained before. And if there was a fire, people couldn’t get out of the building [if there was a crowd around me blocking the exit],” Cattell said. “So, pretty poor excuses.”

By the end of the summer, the university decided not to take action against Cattell or any individuals, but would uphold the policy for larger groups of students.

Since 1999, Cattell said the university has generally left him alone. However, there are still guidelines he must follow, like not interrupting classes or forming crowds.

“Once in a while it did get kind of loud out here, and [administrators would] come by and say, ‘Can you quiet it down?’ and so I quieted it down. But that’s about it,” he said. “It really hasn’t been a problem.”

Cattell said if Penn State was to ever challenge him again, his stance wouldn’t change.

“Even if you do have to go to jail, or even if you do have to be prosecuted in some way, you still have to draw that line,” he said. “Otherwise, it could just get worse and worse and worse until you can only say what the government likes you to say.”

Students, professors and community members speak their minds

While Cattell uses the zones to preach more conservative-based views, other groups — like Standing at the Gates for Justice — uses the space to spread awareness about more liberal causes.

Every Monday, Standing at the Gates for Justice meets at the Allen Street Gates to promote and encourage dialogue about a variety of topics, from LGBTQ issues to climate change.

Ben Wideman, campus pastor for Third Way Collective and a Standing at the Gates for Justice activist, said he likes the free speech zones because they allow individuals and groups to express themselves.

But their downside? Anyone may use them.

“[The zones] can also provide a platform for certain kinds of hatred and bigotry cloaked under the guise of narrow religious preaching,” Wideman said via email, regarding the Willard Preacher.

Because Cattel remains outside the Willard Building daily, students might become frustrated as they want to avoid the area due to his presence, Wideman said.

“Students who belong to underrepresented populations already feel more vulnerable. Our free speech zones sometimes create even more vulnerability in their lives.”

Standing At The Gates For Justice

From left to right, Charlie O'Neill, DeeAnn Wylie, Sarah Malone, and Ben Wideman, all of State College, PA, stand with signs in front of the Allen street gates on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

As the zones are debated among student groups and community members, many believe the zones raise questions about the role of the First Amendment in America.

Associate teaching professor of journalism and media law Cynthia Simmons said that free speech zones aren’t a specialty of hers, but she personally disagrees with them.

“Generally speaking, I think free speech zones are a misnomer because the designation implies that offensive, unpopular or provocative speech won't be tolerated in other places,” Simmons said via email. “But there is protection of almost all speech in most public areas under the First Amendment.”

Simmons gave the example of disagreeing with the Willard Preacher.

“Can the Willard Preacher spew his hate and homophobia on any street corner? Yes. Are you free to spit on the ground as you walk by or cough ‘bullshit’ into your fist? Yes, those speech acts are also protected,” Simmons said.

Former Penn State media law professor David Rasmussen said that, generally, university campuses have an “obligation” to allow public discussion and demonstration.

“University students have a desire and a need to explore new ideas, and should be exposed to thoughts and manners of thinking different from their own,” he said.

Still, he said he understands the reasoning behind a university creating these specified zones for free speech.

“As long as the ideas and expression are not censored on the basis of their content, I can understand specific guidelines which regulate the time, place or manner of expression allowed,” Rasmussen said. “University administrators have an interest in maintaining an orderly campus, while still allowing for robust discussion and demonstration.”

Rasmussen said he’s seen universities over the years cancel events or speaker invitations because of student or community backlash — and this is something he doesn’t agree with.

“I feel we've become so paralyzed by fear of being politically incorrect that it has created a real chilling effect on speech,” he said.

Youth Climate Strike, Protesters

A protester holds a sign during the Youth Climate Strike on Friday, September 20, 2019 at the Allen Street Gates.

Ultimately, Rasmussen said that free speech zones are warranted, but universities must be careful “to ensure that differing ideas are heard and given a chance to grow.”

While some are averse to the zones, others say they understand why they exist. Penn State student Brian Morris said he thinks it’s the university’s right to create and enforce the zones.

“Although we do pay to attend this university, at the same time, if there were to be a campus-wide protest with multiple organizations that didn’t have any bounds, that could cause safety issues,” Morris (sophomore-environmental resource management) said. “It would be far more dangerous and less organized for the protestors themselves, as well as the university.”

The zones allow Penn State to make sure things don’t go “awry,” he said.

“One of the key things is providing a safe and healthy learning environment,” Morris said, “and this can be argued as helping to maintain that safe and healthy learning environment for the college students by having them be in specific areas.”

The zones: Past and present

While the university does not keep a record of what party requested each change to the free speech policy, it does keep a record of the changes made.

When the free speech zones were first implemented, the university designated six spots — later adding the seventh spot outside of the Willard Building.

The Collegian published an editorial in 1999 applauding the university for allowing Cattell to remain outside the Willard Building after determining that the new policy would not affect individuals.

Policy AD51 archives

A Collegian editorial that ran in the Aug. 3, 1999 paper applauding the university for making revisions to Policy AD51.

In 2004, the Collegian published another editorial also speaking out against the free speech zones again.

“By putting limitations on where groups can assemble to share their opinions and push their respective causes before the university community, Penn State is holding back the kind of public discourse that our democracy was founded upon,” the editorial reads.

In 2004, Penn State’s student government lobbied for the university to add eight free speech zones to the list. The university added four: IST Plaza, HUB-Robeson rear sidewalk pad, HUB Lawn and the Osmond fountain area.

In 2005, the "Area under the Willaman Gateway to the Life Sciences" was also added.

Modifications have been made to the policy up until April 22, 2019, when a statement was added: "All persons engaging in expressive activity on University property must comply with University policies."

The use of the designated areas comes with a set of rules, which states no sound equipment may be used between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and traffic or classrooms may not be disrupted.

Penn State’s free speech zones aren’t an outlier — other universities across the country employ similar guidelines.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union took legal action against Arkansas State University for the zones. These free speech zones, the ACLU said, infringed on students’ First Amendment rights.

“The problem is, ‘Free Expression Areas’ are not a thing under the Constitution — all public spaces in America are free-expression areas,” the ACLU wrote in a post on Feb. 7.

Damon Sims said in his 12 years as vice president for Student Affairs, he has seen various people and groups utilize the areas for expressive activities, including marches, political speeches and sit-ins.

“I’m not sure a day passes when this kind of activity isn’t present on our campus, and I am grateful that it is,” Sims said. “There may be no characteristic on vibrant and successful college campuses more ubiquitous that freedom of speech. It’s the freedom that lies at the very heart of what a university is all about, and I am glad that Penn State does all it should to protect it.”

The question of censorship

One student who has direct experience with the outdoor areas for expressive speech is Aidan Mattis.

Mattis (senior-medieval studies), president of Young Americans for Liberty and vice president of the College Republicans, has dealt with Penn State administration on multiple occasions regarding policy AD51.

As part of Young Americans for Liberty, Mattis and his organization has deliberately broken the free speech policy by erecting a giant beach ball, which they call the “free speech ball,” for other students to write on as a way to protest the zones. This placement breaks a rule in the policy that prohibits groups from obstructing walkways.

Along with Representative Thomas Sankey, a Republican representing Clearfield County, Mattis initiated a bill that aims to hold higher education institutions to free speech rights — or they would face defunding.

The 2018 bill would make it easier for students or campus organizations to take legal action against the university if they felt their free speech was being restricted, which includes established free speech zones. The bill has not been passed.

While Mattis believes the zones’ specifications were created in goodwill, his mission is to expel the policy because it is “unconstitutional.”

Willard Preacher free speech ball

Gary Cattell, known to students as the Willard Preacher, signs the Penn State chapter of Turning Point USA's free speech ball on Oct. 3.

“We're going to bug [the university] about it until they do something,” Mattis said. “This is a movement in this country. This is a group of people who want to get rid of the things that are basically turning us into intellectual lightweights.”

For example, Mattis said the policy should not allow groups to be removed from the area they occupy if a different group reserved the space. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to reserve these areas with the university as they will get priority over other groups, but this step isn’t required.

“I understand that if one group booked [the space] another can’t come steal it,” Mattis said. “But at the same time, there should never be an overlap in where people can speak freely because this is a [big] campus. There is so much space to express. You know, it's kind of ridiculous.”

He also said some professors use their class time to voice their political views — which he said he believes directly violates the free speech policy, as classrooms are not free speech zones.

However , in the Penn State faculty handbook, policy AD92 says that university employees and representatives are free to “make any political statement” personally as a private citizen, so long as the employee is clear the opinion does not represent the views of the university.

But according to Policy R-6, faculty members are supposed to encourage students to “think for themselves.”

Mattis chalks this up to “academic elitism.”

“[Professors] think they know better,” Mattis said. “I honestly just think its pride.”

Ultimately, Mattis believes free speech zones are the beginning of censorship — which he believes poses a threat to individual rights.

“Censorship is tyranny. That’s it,” Mattis said. “Right now we’re saying where you can and can’t speak, we’re starting to say what words you can and can’t say. How far are we from 1984?”

If you're interested in submitting a Letter to the Editor, click here.