Freedom of Expression Policy at Ohio University Reaches for a Middle Ground

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ATHENS, Ohio – Over the past two years, Ohio University has found itself involved in a complex back-and-forth with its students regarding freedom of expression and whether their display of such expression through protest is being protected or hindered. Despite the administration’s efforts to bring closure to the matter, the question remains whether students feel they are able to freely express themselves.

The following timeline details the speed in which freedom of expression on campus waned.

The Old Policy

In response to the early 2017 arrests of around 70 people protesting in Baker Center, an interim policy was established that limited protests indoors or in designated university-owned buildings.

The policy essentially granted the university control over where and when students could protest. Outdoor spaces were favored, but with caveats:  They would be banned if the protests would disrupt other events. Indoor spaces were almost completely ruled out as protest sites. Meetings are about the only events permitted by the policy, and even then a space must be reserved ahead of time. Rallies, speeches, marches, demonstrations, and other forms of protest are not permitted by the policy.

These decisions were vigorously opposed by many students, since then Ohio University President Duane Nellis has attempted to find a solution.

Over a year later, President Nellis’ Presidential Policy Advisory Group came to a new consensus about how to enact policy for students’ freedom of expression with a renewed focus on accommodating student protests. The new policy was the result of the administration’s effort to assess the feelings of those affected by the interim policy.

The New Policy

The new policy for free expression is laid out in three parts.

  • The first states the university’s commitment to students’ freedom of expression, and details the various ways students are protected under the First Amendment. In it the university makes a point to remain neutral regarding the message content and the party engaging in such expression.
  • On the topic of counter-protests, the university reserves the right to manage and facilitate a productive communication between the two groups. Just two restrictions remain in the new policy: regulating the circumstances of the event to prevent disruption to secondary parties and/or university operations.
  • On the much-discussed topic of use of indoor spaces, the university opens up more options. Forms of protest are no longer out-and-out banned, but advanced permission is required. “Disruption” is also more clearly defined as not impeding classes or university functions with loud noise or blocking exits for passers-by. Outdoor spaces are preferred under the new policy for obvious reasons. Additionally, noise such as megaphones are now permitted if cleared with event services.


Student Protests in 2018

At least twice this semester, the LGBTQ community started spontaneous counter-protests outside Baker Center against a group carrying homophobic signs. These counter-protests generated a rather large crowd with both spectators and participants. They concluded without incident but required an occasional campus police officer clearing sidewalk space for pedestrians. Discourse between the two groups remained civil though at sometimes confrontational but never escalating beyond verbal exchanges.

A large counter-protest from the LGBT community on September 12th
A smaller counter-protest of similar context on National Coming Out Day
National Coming Out Day was observed on October 11th
An officer approached to warn protesters not to block the sidewalk for pedestrians

However, the proving ground for the university’s handling of a large-scale student organized protest wouldn’t occur until September of 2018.

On September 27th, students of Ohio University marched along College Green for the “It’s On Us, Bobcats” student rally. The effort came as a response to the increased reports of sexual assault on campus.

Mallory Golski, a senior Journalism major and one of the three principal organizers of the rally, said the rally was the idea of her friend Cody Shanklin.

“He lives with all women, so he was feeling especially frustrated that they were worried about buying pepper spray and taking self-defense classes just to be able to walk to the library alone at night,” she said. “He was realizing he didn’t have to do that as a man.” They two met with Hannah Burke, the Vice President of OU’s Student Senate, and began planning.

“It’s On Us,” as a movement, has its roots in 2014, and has remained a way to raise awareness about sexual assaults on campuses. The effort urges students to intervene during potential assaults to foster a safer environment. When organizing, Golski said it made sense to utilize the blueprint already established for college campus movements.

The rally gathered around 500 participants, and was planned out in about three weeks.

“We wanted it to be as grassroots as possible,” Golski said. “We didn’t want to partner with any campus organization [or] office on campus. Not to say that they wouldn’t have been beneficial or useful, but we really wanted it to be as student-driven as possible.”

While not explicitly partnering with any groups on campus, Golski said the University was accommodating when they reached out to make sure they were doing everything to create a safe and legal event. OUPD met with them to discuss how the event would go down and ensure it would be safe.

“I was a little bit nervous beforehand,” Golski said.  “OUPD’s only real suggestion was to be wary of others trying to take advantage of the platform, and to pick any speakers in advance so as to avoid any unwanted spontaneity.”

The university informed them they would be protected under the school’s insurance as long as it was in place.

“That was one thing that they made sure we knew,” she said.

Also the group had to secure a parade permit for the rally.

The well-attended event went off without any real problems. Noone attempted to derail the message of the event and they kept on schedule in time for the rally, set to happen after a march around campus.

“People not only did what we hoped they would do [such as] cheer, chant, and listen quietly as survivors shared their stories, but I think more people joined in and it went more smoothly than I could have anticipated,” Golski said.

Golski said she is hopeful the university would have been just as accommodating if the event, which focused more on the student body taking action, was directed at OU instead.

“I’d like to think that the university would want to listen to what we had to say and make those changes, she said. “Had the rally been about ‘The university needs to do more to stop sexual assaults,’ I think that they probably would have listened, because it is a problem that’s happening on campus.”

Golski said it is the most productive to bring suggestions to the administration and others instead of finger pointing.

“If they don’t have a solution in mind and we don’t come to them with a solution, then we’re still kind of stuck at the same spot and it would be a lot easier to shut that down,” she said.

But Golski said change doesn’t happen overnight.

“[The success of the event] is not measured in that moment; it’s measured afterward, and sometimes its not in a very tangible way,” she said.” You can’t just stand ground at every point on campus and be like ‘Okay, are people treating each other a little bit better? Are the sexual assaults really decreasing?’ It’s harder to measure in that way.”

The impact has already been felt statewide. Both Miami University and Kent State have contacted Golski about potential rallies on their respective campuses.

“There’s been a lot of media coverage for this, and the stories that have been the most frustrating are the ones that say ‘Ohio University has an epidemic [of] sexual assaults,’ and that’s obviously a huge critical part,” Golski said. “But I really don’t think that’s the story; [it’s] the students who are holding themselves accountable, wanting to hold others accountable, and are taking it upon themselves to be that change. That’s something that doesn’t happen everywhere.”

She said she also feels that there’s something of a silver lining: As more sexual assaults are being reported, more survivors are feeling safe enough to come out with their stories.