Free speech areas expected to curb overcrowding in front of Library North

The sign posted up in Library Plaza indicates that the “free speech area” has been moved to Unity Plaza and Urban Life Plaza. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal
The sign posted up in Library Plaza indicates that the “free speech area” has been moved to Unity Plaza and Urban Life Plaza.  Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal
The sign posted up in Library Plaza indicates that the “free speech area” has been moved to Unity Plaza and Urban Life Plaza.
Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

Students, protesters and advocates alike can no longer rally in Georgia State’s Library Plaza.

After a Student Government Association (SGA) proposition was ratified by university officials last year, the school has allocated two spots at the Atlanta campus where people are free to raise their voices to endorse or condemn whatever or whomever they please.

But this dedication of “free speech areas” has some people wondering if the school’s new expression policies are restricting their First Amendment liberties. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) claims Georgia State has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

Not so, said GSUPD Chief Carlton Mullis. He told The Signal that, due to the student body influx prompted by the GSU-Georgia Perimeter College consolidation, the plaza afront the library is no longer a safe space to draw a crowd.

With roughly 32,000 students now traversing Georgia State’s central campus, Mullis said, the burgeoning crowd in Library Plaza has become a liability in the event of an on-campus emergency.

“Library Plaza has historically been dedicated as a free speech area and a performance area,” he said. “The problem is, if you go down there at noon, it’s too crowded to try to fit anything that would attract a crowd.”

With the old allowances for speech and event hosting, “people could have been trampled in a stampede,” said GSUPD Maj. Anthony Coleman during a rally by the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition which, against the wishes of police, kicked off in Library Plaza.

“We’ve had issues where there’s some speech going on out in the plaza, and if we had a fire alarm or some type of emergency situation, we couldn’t get those people out,” he said.

free-speech-areasUniversity rules now dictate that all speeches and announcements need to be made at the two new free speech areas located at Unity Plaza, the Student Center’s front stoop, and the Urban Life Plaza, a courtyard on Downtown’s Decatur Street.

“We’re not trying to limit speech,” Mullis said. “We’re trying to do it in a safe area.”

The university is under no obligation to make its property available for public engagements, and, according to the school’s code of conduct, school officials and police reserve the right to control the “time, place and manner” of free speech expression on school grounds.

Kathleen Burch, the in-house counsel for Georgia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that’s because the school has to ensure no one disrupts its scholastic or administrative processes.

“If the actions of protesters [or advocates] are disrupting what’s going on in the buildings, they can be asked to move [to the free speech areas],” she said, noting the school’s right to ban noise amplification devices and usher people to the appropriate areas.

Mullis said the allotted space is meant to provide a venue for speech-making and marching without sacrificing visibility for rally attendees.

“We’ve tried to set aside locations that are still visible; we’re not sticking them all the way at the Clarkston campus or over by Turner Field,” he said.

Many of these decisions to effect free speech regulations stem from campus uproar prompted by fundamentalist Christian organizations which have been returning to the Library Plaza every fall for a few years.

“We have the preachers come here every year,” Mullis said. “They’ll be here in a couple of weeks, but the question is not whether they’re allowed on campus. The question is where can we do that safely.”

He said, when that anti-gay, extremist group inevitably returns this year – They tend to show up around the same time as the Atlanta LGBTQ Pride festivities – they’ll be sent to one of the free speech zones and cordoned off separate from whatever counter protesters gather.

“With protesters and counter-protesters, you never put those two things together. But that’s what was happening at Library Plaza [in prior years],” Mullis said.

As for some students’ concerns that the discriminatory protests should be disallowed by the university, Mullis said the campus police will afford everyone the same freedom of speech, regardless of the speech’s content.

“You don’t have to get approved for what you’re there to say,” he said. “It’s just a matter of scheduling. You can praise Mark Becker, denounce Mark Becker, praise Nathan Deal, denounce Nathan Deal, and tell everyone they’re going to hell in a handbasket. We’re not controlling the content.”

“It’s probably one of the most challenging things for students to understand, but if we curtail [the Christian fundamentalists’] rights, then we curtail the rights of others,” said Georgia State Dean of Students Darryl Holloman in an interview with CBS46.

But, as Burch iterated, if that free speech exercise becomes disruptive to school functions, police can step in to intervene.

Mullis said Georgia State is “not all a free speech area.”

“This is a university, and we have a mission,” he said. “If you’re in Library Plaza with a speaker system, you’re disturbing the business of the institution.”

“We’d fall back on criminal trespass or disorderly conduct charges if we need to deal with this,” he said.


Ground for conflict

Georgia State SGA President Fortune Onwuzuruike told The Signal that he’s in full support of students’ and the public’s First Amendment rights, but he’s backed the school’s motive of adjusting its policy to provide safety.

“When I was an SGA senator, we voted to have free speech zones moved to Unity Plaza and Hurt Park,” he said, noting the recent change is why the performance stage has been removed from Library Plaza. “Everyone has the right to say what they want, but I think there are other ways of getting your message across,” he said. “I just care about the safety of the students; I don’t think the GSUPD would do anything [excessive].”

However, students at the University of Georgia clashed with their college’s leaders when free speech areas popped up around the Athens campus.

Armed with the notion that free speech areas’ existence implies other parts of the property are not protected by constitutional rights of expression, the students sued UGA to repeal the rules, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But UGA has a vastly different campus setting from Georgia State’s, said Burch. And in the close quarters of Downtown’s urban environment, she said, safety must be a top priority.

“Athens is a college town in a rural area, but when we talk about GSU, the traffic situation is a whole different scenario than at UGA,” she said. “It’s a high-traffic area and people may actually want to hold their protests there. To the extent that what they’re trying to do is maintain safety and keep the traffic flowing.”

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