Campus cops: free speech needs 'approval' from college

An activist was kicked off of campus and threatened with arrest for a free speech demonstration at Middlesex County College.

“[A free speech demonstration] requires advanced approval from the college,” the campus police officer told Leadership Institute field representative Tim Petarra as he asked Petarra to “pick up your stuff and leave.”

[Full disclosure: The Leadership Institute is Campus Reform's parent organization.]

[RELATED: Free speech petitioners told they’ll be ‘locked up’ at DuPage]

Petarra told Campus Reform that he was trying to set up a club on campus, and so set up blank white boards for people to write on, encouraging them to write anything they want to celebrate free speech, and also provided pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution.

Students tend to be surprised that they are allowed to write anything they want, Petarra said, remarking that “They don’t even know basic civil liberties” and are “not used to that freedom.”

However, that freedom quickly vanished when a police officer approached him because the F-word was written on the wall, which the officer describes as “vulgar” in video footage obtained by Campus Reform.

“I want it flipped around,” the officer says.

Petarra argues that when on a public campus, he is protected under the Bill of Rights, but the officer counters that “while you’re on college property you are governed by the rules and regulations of the college.”

When Petarra reiterates his contention that the campus is public property, the officer repeats, “well, you’re governed by the rules and regulations of the college,” prompting Petarra to point out that those regulations of speech are unconstitutional, to which the officer merely responds a third time that “you’re governed by the rules and regulations of the college.”

Petarra continually refuses to censor the offending word, saying that he defends the right to everyone’s free speech, leading the officer to warn him that he could ultimately face arrest.

“If I find that you are in violation of college rules and regulations, I’m going to have you remove the signs; if you refuse to remove the signs, I’m going to have you arrested,” the officer informs Petarra. “On a college campus, you can’t put signs anywhere you want to put them.”

After briefly departing, the officer returns with a policy manual and a much more imposing demand, saying he now needs the display to be taken down completely.

Showing the students a section stating that all demonstrations require prior approval from the college, he explains that “on the college campus, you can’t put signs anywhere you want to put them.”

Noting that Petarra’s activities are considered a “demonstration” under campus policies because he was advocating for a cause, the officer elaborates that “your cause is free speech, so therefore you need approval from the college.”

When Petarra asks whether he can just remove the signs with the F-Word and replace them with another blank board, as originally instructed, the officer replies in the negative, saying, “No, it’s still free speech.”

The officer then directs Petarra again to pick up his materials and leave, which he ultimately does without further incident.

“This happens to me like once every week,” Petarra told Campus Reform, referring to violations of his First Amendment rights on college campuses. “It blows my mind…that a police officer does not know the law.”

A spokesperson for the college, Tom Peterson, told Campus Reform via email that when Petarra told the officer that he did not have prior approval to conduct the free speech demonstration, the officer told him to leave, but that no further action was taken.

“A demonstration policy is necessary,” Peterson asserted. “While we support the right to demonstrate, we also have a responsibility to ensure that it does not interfere with classes or other college activities. We also want to make sure Campus Police are prepared so that the demonstrators are not interfered with, and that they are not preventing the college community from conducting its normal activities.”

The policy, which is listed on page 40 of the Board of Trustees policy manual, states that “the College will not approve any demonstration that will disrupt the mission or orderly operation of the College.”

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