RUSSELLVILLE -- Arkansas Tech University has expanded its designated area for free speech to accommodate a growing student population.
School policy had limited students to organizing events and demonstrations in three areas on campus. The areas were a 5-foot radius of the campus bell tower, the west courtyard of the Doc Bryan Student Services Center and the lecture hall of the Doc Bryan center. The locations as well as acceptable times were enumerated in the 2016 student handbook.
On Thursday, the school's board of trustees unanimously approved changing the area for public speech and demonstration to include the lawn from Baswell Techionery, the student union, to the steps of the Ross Pendergraft Library and Technology Center, as well as the already established areas.
Arkansas Tech spokesman Samuel Strasner said various student and nonstudent groups were already using that area for various events, including sororities holding bake sales and area summer camps recruiting students workers.
That area also will see between 3,000 and 4,000 people Monday night when the school hosts its annual involvement fair to give student organizations a chance to recruit new members and to kick off the first week of classes.
Another reason for the change is the growth in student population, Strasner said. Arkansas Tech's campuses in Russellville and Ozark now boast more than 12,000 students; total enrollment was about 4,200 two decades ago.
"More people need a little more space," Strasner said.
Arkansas Tech attorney Thomas Pennington said the university's regulations on free speech are content-neutral.
"It doesn't matter if you want to save the whale or eat the whale," Pennington said.
The school drew attention from members of the state Legislature in March when an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) student advocacy group hosted an event near the bell tower called "Sex on the Lawn." The goal of the event, according to the group's Facebook page, was to educate students about safe sex, taking into account different sexual orientations and gender identities.
The event upset some legislators, who proposed stripping funding for the university's department of diversity and inclusion, which was listed on signs for the event. Strasner said the department was not a sponsor of the event and that legislators' concerns grew out of a misunderstanding.
On March 15, the board of trustees passed a resolution stating that neither the name nor logo of the department could be placed on any materials advertising a student event, and that any events the department sponsored would require approval from the board.
The department did not lose any funding because of the event.
Strasner said the two changes are part of an ongoing evaluation of policy regarding student activities and ensuring that students can exercise their constitutional rights without getting in the way of the university's educational mission.
Metro on 08/18/2017
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