red-square

Alex Bacon / The AS Review

As Americans, we enjoy the right to free speech granted to us by the first amendment.  Some exercise their free speech more than others, and at Western, this exercise usually takes place in Red Square.

Red Square has been the traditional place for demonstrations, protests and other free speech displays because it is the center of campus, it’s well defined and it’s a crossroad, as many people go through Red Square at least once a day,  Jim Schuster, director of Viking Union Facilities, said.

Although free speech is a right, when it happens on campus Western has the right to stop a display of any kind if it’s getting out of hand, Schuster said. Western is considered a limited forum, meaning that Western can regulate the time, place and manner of demonstrations, especially if such demonstrations interfere with Western’s main purpose: education.

“Western’s business is to educate and anything that might interrupt that we cannot allow,” Schuster said.

This doesn’t mean that everything will be stopped.  Reasonable spontaneity is allowed, but disrupting classes, preventing people from entering buildings or amplifying sound before 5 p.m. Monday through Friday will get an event or demonstration shut down, Schuster said.

Student organizations can reserve Red Square for tabling or demonstrations. In the past, a student group has reserved Red Square and invited the Genocide Awareness Project to demonstrate, Schuster said.  Had the demonstration been random, the University would have asked them to leave because of the large posters, photos and barricade.  However, since the demonstration had been prearranged with Student Affairs, it was allowed to go ahead, Schuster said.

Organizers of protests are encouraged to contact Schuster to set up pre-event meetings.  Schuster and Student Affairs want people to be able to protest, but organizers need to know the rules before they go ahead with the event so they don’t interfere with Western’s ability to educate.  For example, Schuster asked, “What if someone’s trying to take the LSAT and there’s a protest going on outside?”  A pre-event meeting would include event organizers, staff from Student Affairs, University Police and anyone else who might be impacted by the event.

If protesters want to walk down the streets, they should alert Bellingham police.  If they want to walk in the streets, they need a permit from the Bellingham police, Schuster said.

“The bottom line for us is safety,” Schuster said.

A few years ago, during a protest of the Iraq war, someone threatened to shoot protesters, Schuster said. Police presence was heavy there in order to protect protesters.

Just as with demonstrations or tabling in Red Square, protesters aren’t allowed to amplify sound before 5 p.m. Monday through Friday because it disrupts classes.  If protesters or organizers violate this regulation, they will be put on probation by Student Affairs.

Chalking in Red Square also falls under the free speech umbrella.  Unlike speech, tabling and demonstrations, the area where chalking is allowed is limited. The boundaries of the area are marked by the fountain, trees and lampposts in front of Haggard Hall (see info graphic for exact location). Chalking outside of the chalk zone, especially on buildings or art installations, is considered graffiti and such actions will be considered a violation of the student rights and responsibilities code.  Non-students could be charged with vandalism.

Another activity sometimes connected to the right to exercise free speech is disseminating information. At Western, that information often comes in the form of a handbill.  Many students are familiar with the people standing in walkways handing out pieces of paper, or handbills.  These people tend to stand in four main places: between the Humanities Building and Wilson Library, by Miller Hall and Bond Hall, between Carver Gym and the Art Department, and by Parks Hall and the Environmental Studies Building.

Anybody can handbill, but if it’s commercial, they will be asked to leave, Schuster said.  Student organizations, nonprofits, people promoting events or promoting candidates can give out handbills but businesses can’t hand out advertisements or coupons.  To report a for-profit organization for handbilling on campus, call the Viking Union at (360) 650-3450.

If certain handbills become a litter problem, the handbillers will be asked to leave and not come back because it’s obvious students don’t want them, Schuster said.

Recurring problems Schuster deals with include people showing up to demonstrate or table without knowing the rules and people blocking building access.  Also, selling things like cookies or clothes is limited to Vendors Row and is not allowed in Red Square.

Additionally, Schuster has found that some people don’t understand that free speech rights don’t extend to events—they can protest and demonstrate outside, but cannot go inside and interrupt, Schuster said.

“The University is dedicated to upholding people’s right to free speech as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the university’s responsibilities or threaten people’s safety,” Schuster said.

For official guidelines about activities in Red Square and chalking, students can check out the six-panel information kiosk in Red Square by the stairs between Haggard Hall and Wilson Library.