Education

Want to protest at Columbia Basin College? Be prepared to stay in the ‘free speech zone’

A mural gathering area at Columbia Basin Collegethe space north of the A building is a designated place that non college groups can use for “First Amendment activities,” according to state codes.
A mural gathering area at Columbia Basin Collegethe space north of the A building is a designated place that non college groups can use for “First Amendment activities,” according to state codes. Tri-CIty Herald

A movement to legalize pot in Richland is having an impact on a small stage at Columbia Basin College.

When Legalize Richland was collecting signatures to get a measure on the November ballot, they wanted to go on the Pasco campus with its petitions.

That’s when they discovered a series of restrictions baring “non-college” groups from using much of the campus for “First Amendment activities.”

They also needed to sign up a day in advance, provide identification and detail what they were going to be doing.

The Libertarian Party of Benton and Franklin counties says those restrictions need to stop.

They plan to protest the rules from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday at the stage north of “A” building.

“Public universities are not private businesses,” Ryan Cooper, the Libertarian party’s treasurer, said in a statement. “People have a right to exercise free speech at CBC without prior notice and in a location outside of the so-called ‘free speech area.’”

The college’s rules are written into the Washington Administrative Code and were most recently approved in 2016. The fact that they are part of the code may make them harder to change.

‘Free speech’ zones not new

Battles over “free speech” zones are not new.

They are something that Cooper battled before when he took on Southwest Missouri State University in 2003.

At the time, the school limited protests to a small section of the campus. A group led by Cooper were helped by the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which sued the school.

He said the university settled with the group and changed most of its rules around the restriction.

More college campuses across the country have been eliminating rules designating “free speech zones,” according to the industry magazine Inside Higher Ed. Some include colleges in Colorado, Tennessee and Utah.

“If you have free speech in a closet, it’s not free speech,” Cooper contends. “It’s not free speech, if no one can see or hear you.”

The Libertarian leaders expect the Pasco protest won’t draw a large crowd, making their point. The small stage sits near the south end of the Pasco campus, which Cooper described as remote.

CBC officials declined to talk about the issue Thursday, saying they expect to issue a statement Friday or next week.

Cooper said he tried reaching out to administrators, but didn’t get a clear answer on why the rules are in place or how they can be changed.

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Cameron Probert covers breaking news and higher education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.


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