Christian Religious Freedom Group Sues UMass School Over 'Speech Zone' Policy

(Photo: Facebook / University of Massachusetts)The University of Massachusetts Amherst

College students are suing a University of Massachusetts school on grounds that the institution's "speech zone" policy is limiting their constitutional right to engage in free expression on campus.

Attorney's with one of the most prominent conservative Christian religious freedom and free speech law centers in the United States are coming to the aid of the conservative Young Americans for Liberty chapter at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

With the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom — a legal group that has defended the religious freedom rights of Christians in a number of Supreme Court cases through the years — students with the Young Americans for Liberty filed a federal lawsuit against university officials in U.S. District Court on Monday.

The students are seeking both declaratory and injunctive relief from "unreasonable" and "vague" policies that ban "speeches and rallies" on campus that don't occur between the approved hours of noon and 1 p.m. and at the approved location in front of the school's Student Union.

According to the lawsuit, the university's policy states: "[o]utdoor speeches and rallies during class hours may be held only on the west side of the Student Union Building, and shall be limited to one hour in length from noon to 1 p.m."

The lawsuit argues that such a policy limits freedom of speech rights to an area that equates to just one percent of the size of the university campus. In addition, even the free speech rights in that small area of campus are limited to just one hour per day.

The lawsuit claims that the university does not define the terms "speech" or "rally." ADF argues that the terms are not defined by the university so that a decision on whether to allow a group to speak or not can be determined based on the group's viewpoint.

The lawsuit warns that students who are caught violating the policy could face disciplinary action as serious as expulsion.

"Thus, delivering a speech, inviting a speaker, or holding or participating in a rally outside of the designated zone or during hours other than between noon and 1 p.m. may result in sanctions up to and including expulsion from the University," the lawsuit claims.

In addition to representing the Young Americans for Liberty Amherst chapter, ADF is also representing an student by the name of Nicholas Consolini in the lawsuit. The university's policy also prevents individuals from being qualified to reserve spaces on campus that are usually made available for student groups and clubs.

"Mr. Consolini, in his individual capacity, desires to be able to engage in expression that could be deemed a speech or a rally at times other than noon to 1 p.m. but the Speech Zone Policy bans him from doing so and burdens the and thus burdens his expression," the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit claims that the students' free speech rights are unlawfully burdened by the university's free speech zone policy.

According to the lawsuit, school officials were repeatedly warned that the speech zone policy violates the students rights guaranteed under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The lawsuit also charges that school officials have failed to "establish neutral criteria governing the decision when expression constitutes banned speeches and rallies."

"There is a substantial risk that university officials will engage in content and viewpoint discrimination when addressing student speech," the lawsuit argues.

MassLive.com points out that the lawsuit does not specifically accuse the university of quashing any particular rally in process.

ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton said in a statement that limiting free speech at a university to just one percent of the campus makes it hard for a college to be the "marketplace of ideas" that it is supposed to be.

"UMass-Amherst's speech policy contains provisions similar to those that courts have repeatedly struck down as unconstitutional at other schools," Dalton argued. "If the university wishes to demonstrate its dedication to the free exchange of ideas, it can do so by fixing its policy so that it's consistent with the First Amendment."

The university has declined to comment on the pending litigation when pressed on the matter by local media outlets.

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