An Arizona college student passing out American flags with friends Friday for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 was forced to move after campus officials accused her of hindering foot traffic and lacking the proper permit. Despite the university's denials, the event organizer said officials violated her right to free speech.
Northern Arizona University student Stephanee Freer was confronted by four university officials and one police officer the week of Sept. 11 and told she could not pass out U.S. flags inside the university building. Freer told the Arizona Daily Sun that she and other students were initially passing out the flags and other patriotic material outside, but fled indoors when it began to rain.
University officials, however, told the students they were violating event rules listed in the student handbook and would need to either move the event outside or move to another section of the building. The section they were told to move to is less visible to the public, Freer said.
A video of the altercation shows that when one of the students asked an employee for her definition of the First Amendment, the employee replied, "Free speech in a designated time, place and manner."
University spokesman Tom Bauer denied infringing on the students' right to free speech and expression. "We were not asking them to be quiet. We were not asking them to leave," he told the Sun. "We were asking them to move to a different location within the same area. This is basically clearing the walkways."
However, Freer canceled plans to pass out flags the rest of the anniversary weekend after the confrontation.
The First Amendment allows for the free exercise of speech as well as the right of the people to peaceably assemble. Additionally, the ruling in U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District extends free speech rights to students in school. In the 1969 case, students were punished for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.
During Friday’s incident, an employee told the students that the university is within it bounds to regulate the "time place and manner" of where students can assemble, an interpretation of the First Amendment the Secret Service uses to establish a free speech zone around the president.
University police officers collected the students' names when they resisted the staff members' request. The students were later summoned to the dean of students' office to discuss the situation.
Bauer said the students were not disciplined for the incident.
Freer said 9/11 is very important to her, and she likes to get involved.
"Every year, I do something for 9/11, and it's never been disrupted like this," she said. "I wasn't waiting for an incident. I wasn't looking for an incident ...This was really about 9/11 and it turned into a free speech violation."