ADF letter prompts Univ. of Wis. to stop throttling student expression in outdoor areas of campus

River Falls campus will no longer forbid student conversation without advance permission, student group recognition

Wednesday, Jul 15, 2020
RIVER FALLS, Wis. – After receiving a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of a student, the University of Wisconsin–River Falls has revised its restrictive student speech policies.

ADF attorneys sent the letter on behalf of student Sofie Salmon after a school administrator informed her that she could not engage in expression in the public outdoor areas of campus without paying for a reservation or registering as a student club. The letter explained that the university should revise its vague and unconstitutional policies so that students can exercise their First Amendment rights without unwarranted restraints.

“The only permission slip students need to speak on public college campuses is the U.S. Constitution,” said ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton. “The First Amendment doesn’t allow a university or college to play favorites or limit free speech to so-called ‘speech zones.’ The previous University of Wisconsin–River Falls policies were unconstitutional because they forced students to ask permission before speaking and allowed school administrators to silence student speech based on viewpoint or other vague, arbitrary reasons. We commend the university for recognizing these errors and correcting them.”

On Sept. 6, 2019, freshman Sofie Salmon walked around UW–River Falls’s campus to recruit members to start a conservative club on campus. Accompanied by a couple of friends, she rolled an oversized beach ball—a “free speech ball”—along with her so that fellow students could express themselves by writing messages on it. Even though Salmon did not block any sidewalks, hinder instruction, or disrupt the campus educational environment, a school administrator told Salmon she must reserve a space for her expression, limit her speech to a public sidewalk on the edge of campus, or risk an encounter with campus police.

The new university policies state, in part, “Students shall be permitted to assemble and engage in spontaneous expressive activity.” The policies also remove the need for a student to pay for a reservation in a speech zone or to be part of an officially recognized club in order to engage in free speech. Updates appear in the Student Handbook, the Student Organization Handbook, and the Facilities Use Policy.

“Sofie shouldn’t have had to go through the experience of being threatened with having the police called on her, but we’re pleased the university has done the right thing now by eliminating the unconstitutional policies and publishing new ones that protect students’ rights,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students.”

  • Pronunciation guide: Langhofer (LANG’-hoff-ur)
The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.
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