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Student group sues UMass, claiming free speech violation

  • John Stewart-Racicot, a UMass student, writes "We are all human" on the student union wall during a protest at the Student Union in February 2017. The “student strike,” aimed at turning the system’s campuses into safe havens for immigrants, coincided with a national general strike against President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies. Organizers asked people not to go to work or make purchases, encouraging them instead to participate in peaceful protests and community service. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2018 11:06:56 PM

AMHERST — A policy that a national student organization claims violates free speech by limiting when and where University of Massachusetts students can hold rallies on the Amherst campus is the subject of a federal lawsuit.

Young Americans for Liberty on Monday sued the university in U.S. District Court over what it argues is an unconstitutional “speech zone policy” embedded in the “Regulation for Use of Property at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Young Americans campus chapter and Nicholas Consolini, an economics major, contends that UMass is in violation of the First Amendment by requiring “outdoor speeches and rallies during class hours” by students to be held between noon and 1 p.m., in an area on the west side of the Student Union building.

The policy, the lawsuit states, doesn’t define “speech” or “rally,” instead leaving that decision up to the discretion of university officials, thus opening the door to unconstitutional discrimination based on a student group’s viewpoint.

Students who do not follow this policy, written into the 1990 regulation, can be disciplined under the student code of conduct, with consequences as severe as expulsions, according to the lawsuit.

Named in the lawsuit are UMass President Marty Meehan, UMass-Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life at UMass-Amherst, as well as the members of the board of trustees.

The lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunction preventing enforcement of the policy and asks UMass to pay nominal and actual damages in an amount to be determined at jury trial for violating Consolini’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Young Americans national president Cliff Maloney said in a statement that the Constitution does not say the First Amendment only applies during lunch break.

“It is shocking to hear that students can get kicked out of a public taxpayer funded university for exercising their First Amendment rights when these universities should be championing the Constitution,” Maloney said.

The national organization formed following the 2008 presidential campaign of Ron Paul and has 900 campus chapters, including the one at UMass-Amherst.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the university is declining comment because it received notice of the lawsuit late in the day.

The Student Life section of the UMass website gives more specific direction to students interested in holding demonstrations.

This reads: “All students, undergraduate and graduate, have a right to demonstrate on university premises. While university policies regarding demonstrations are content-neutral, the university necessarily reserves the right to limit, disallow or disband a demonstration which incites immediate, violent action and represents a clear and present danger to the campus community or if for any reason of time, place, or manner of behavior, the demonstration materially disrupts class work or other university business, involves substantial disorder, or invades of the rights of others.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative, Christian group based in Scottsdale, Arizona, that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group for its support of anti-LGBT policies.

Its attorneys argue the current policy creates a chilling effect on speech and deters students from engaging in their First Amendment rights.

“UMass-Amherst’s speech policy contains provisions similar to those that courts have repeatedly struck down as unconstitutional at other schools,” Alliance Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton said in a statement.

Consolini and the chapter, Dalton said, wanted to host and present speeches and to rally in other publicly accessible open areas of campus, but could be subject to sanctions if they did so.

Andrew Beckwith of Massachusetts Family Institute in Woburn is serving as local counsel for the case.

Pooja Bachani, a spokeswoman for Young Americans for Liberty, said in an email that such “free speech zones” are not unusual at public universities, and this has likely affected many UMass students in the nearly three decades it has been in place.

“It is safe to say that every student to walk through the campus gates since its passage has been adversely affected,” Bachani said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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