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Students sue GVSU for limiting free speech on campus

Grand Valley State University Student Services Building
The lawsuit alleges students are restricted to using two "free speech zones" on Grand Valley's campus.

A student group at Grand Valley State University is suing the school for restricting free speech on campus.
The lawsuit alleges that members of the student group "Turning Point USA at Grand Valley University" were told by university police they would be arrested if they continued talking to students outside a specified area on campus at an October event.

"Students don't need permission to speak on college campuses," said Tyson Langhoffer, the attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom representing students Tim McKeeby and Joe Tucker. "The only permission they need is the First Amendment."

Tucker and McKeeby are listed as plaintiffs in the suit filed in U.S. District court in Grand Rapids Wednesday, December 7. It names the Grand Valley State University board of trustees and president Thomas Haas as defendants.

According to the lawsuit, university policy restricts students to two small "free speech zones" on campus which they must obtain permission to use.

The lawsuit says on October 17, McKeeby and Tucker were asking students to write messages on a large beach ball in an area on campus where they had been granted permission to do so by university staff. After moving away from that area and talking to other students on sidewalks around campus, they were eventually told  by campus police they would be arrested for trespassing if they did not stop talking to other students while outside the "speech zone."

Langhoffer says since Grand Valley State University is a public university, anyone can rightfully speak freely anywhere on campus.

"The entire basis of the lawsuit is that this is a public property," Langhoffer said. “And as public property, it is a public forum.”

Spokespersons at the university refused requests for an interview to discuss policies concerning student free speech.

However, Mary Eileen Lyon, the associate vice president for university communications at GVSU, issued this statement:

Grand Valley State University embraces the First Amendment and encourages, supports and defends free speech. As to the event in question, an organization not affiliated with the university -- not a registered student group -- reserved a public gathering space through the university’s event services unit for a “free speech ball” event. Participants did not follow the policy for outside organizations using university property because after the event was underway, participants moved out of the space that had been reserved for their use. When asked to return to the reserved space, participants dispersed, voluntarily bringing the event to an end.

In a subsequent email, Lyon says Turning Point USA is not a student group registered with the school. However, Langhoffer says the group is registered with the university, and is in the process of securing a faculty sponsor.


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