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SOU students protest university's free-speech zone

Southern Oregon University's "free speech zone" is being scrutinized after four SOU students earlier this month protested outside the zone and were told to move by school officials.

The students — one was identified as Stephanie Keaveney, the student government’s director of administration and finance, and another was Student Body President Promise Grace — were handing out copies of the Constitution and collecting signatures for a petition against SOU’s free speech zone.

According to SOU’s website, the free speech zone is located outside the Stevenson Union and is an area where “individuals and groups, whether they are affiliated with SOU or not, are free to express ideas … as long as that expression falls within legal limits and does not interfere with the SOU educational process.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, the students stationed themselves near McLoughlin Hall and the Greensprings Complex and, when asked by school officials to move to the free speech zone, refused.

The students later told a reporter with Campus Reform, a website that dubs itself a “watchdog to the nation’s higher education system,” that university officials threatened to call the police and threatened disciplinary action.

“I’m not going to speculate on what the students perceived was a threat,” said SOU spokesman Ryan Brown.

“There were four students handing out copies of the Constitution near the residence halls, and they were asked to relocate to the free speech zone, then did not relocate,” he said. “They were not prevented from continuing to hand out the Constitution, or disciplined in any way by the university. And they won’t be.”

Video clips of the interactions between the students and several school officials, including Family Housing & Madrone Area Coordinator Allyson Beck, Director of University Housing Tim Robitz and a campus public safety officer, were posted on the Campus Reform website.

See the video here:

The incident has been covered by Fox News and United Press International, in addition to other news organizations around the country.

“For one thing we are not here today as student government and for another, we don’t believe that campus policy can trump the Constitution and our constitutional rights, so no matter what the campus policy is, we think that, first and foremost, we are guaranteed constitutional rights and that’s why we are out here,” one female student is heard telling Robitz in the video, which has garnered nearly 92,000 views.

The student also could be heard telling Beck, “We are not going to move. Thank you for coming down here and talking to us and explaining the unconstitutional policies on campus, but we are not going to move.”

The female student declines to provide her name when Beck asks for it, but says that she and the other students were in the process of starting a group on campus called Students for Concealed Carry. 

Calls to Keaveney Thursday afternoon were not immediately returned.

In the video, the students also are heard asking the safety officer what will happen if they don’t move to the free speech zone. The officer responds, “I will have to call Ashland Police Department, and it’s gonna get a little more complicated.”

Brown said Ashland police were not called.

Throughout the 18-minute video, officials ask the students repeatedly to move, and the students repeatedly explain their stance and remind the officials that it is a public university.

“So you guys are not willing to follow the policy that exists now?” Robitz asks them. “You are going to violate that policy to try to make a point?”

“Absolutely,” says a female student. “That’s how protests and things change America.”

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily accurate, but you are entitled to that opinion,” Robitz replies.

“The students (living in the residence halls) have the right to have the ability to come by here without you guys invading their space and asking them to do something,” he adds later in the video.

Brown said SOU administrators have reached out to the four students and other students on campus to see whether there is a way to revise or change practices “in a way that would better benefit the entire campus community.”

The policy instituting a free speech zone has been in place for more than a decade, Brown said.

 Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.