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GVSU settles lawsuit over campus free speech

Mar 2, 2017

Grand Valley State University has entered into a settlement agreement with two students and a student group that sued the school, claiming unlawful restrictions on free speech on campus.

Under the February 28 agreement, GVSU agreed to adopt a new Grounds and Facility Use Policy and to pay about $11,000 in legal fees and costs.

The lawsuit claimed university policy limited expressive activity to two small free speech zones that when combined were less than a third of an acre, which comprised approximately 2/100th of a percent of the GVSU campus.

The lawsuit also alleged that the university policy required students to seek prior permission from university officials to use a free speech zone and that there were no standards or timetable for granting or denying permission.

According to the complaint, the student plaintiffs were told by campus police that they would be arrested if they did not stop talking to students and handing out copies of the constitution outside the two free speech zones.

"Speech isn't free when students have to ask permission to speak and they're limited to where they can speak," said Tyson Langhofer, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

"Colleges are supposed to be places where ideas are freely shared and not gagged," said Langhofer. "And so we're thankful that Grand Valley State agrees with that and has modified their policy."

The new policy allows students to gather, speak, hand out literature, and engage in other defined expressive activities throughout the campus, provided these activities comply with 16 rules such as not blocking access to campus buildings, not obstructing automobile or pedestrian traffic, and not using amplification devices.

"The university is a market place of ideas and supports the use of certain areas for expressive activities provided it does not materially disrupt the purpose of the university, which is to educate students and provide for their student activities," said  Tom Butcher, vice president and general counsel for GVSU, in a written statement. "This policy provides greater clarity for students, student organizations and others about use of ground and facilities."