Guest Opinion: Free speech still matters


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During the 1964-1965 school year, what came to be known as the Free Speech Movement began at the University of California, my alma mater. Students protested a variety of restrictions on their ability to express opinions, particularly political opinions, on the campus. I’m not quite old enough to have been there for the beginning of the movement, but when I arrived on the Berkeley campus 10 years later, the spirit of the movement was alive and the changes the movement had achieved were manifest. I often ate my lunch or took a break between classes on Sproul Plaza, which was at the center of the Free Speech Movement’s protests and remained a daily bazaar of political speech. I learned a lot from listening to speakers and participating in rallies on Sproul Plaza and count those experiences as some of the most important of my college career.

Some people have questioned the University of Iowa’s commitment to free speech, and ironically, at least to me, it’s because of an action I took. I was the guy on Dec. 5 who asked the artist to remove the statue he had placed on the Pentacrest. Here’s why I did it: It’s my job to enforce a policy that places modest and reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of some forms of free expression on campus. More on the restrictions in a moment.

But first, to be clear, only some forms of expression are regulated. If you want to give a speech or carry a picket sign on the Pentacrest or Kautz Plaza, feel free to do so any time you want. You don’t need anyone’s permission. (To avoid disrupting classes, we do have a rule against using amplified sound except between 12:20 and 1:30 and after 4:20.) 

Now, if you want to place a display or a table— or a statue, or if you want to hold an organized rally on the Pentacrest or Kautz Plaza, you do need a permit. We want to make sure that two groups don’t plan to use the same space at the same time. We also want to make sure that displays won’t damage the landscape or buildings and that they don’t pose any safety hazards.

Here’s the thing: A permit is really pretty easy to get. Student groups just fill out an Event Information Form and get the appropriate signatures (the process starts in room 159 IMU), and we’ll normally issue you a permit within a few days. Departments and others can contact my office directly (vp-student-life@uiowa.edu) to start the process. We only very rarely turn down requests, and— this is important—we never turn a request down because of the views that will be expressed.

I do have a personal perspective on the December 5 statue, and it’s one informed by listening to dozens of black students tell me about the meaning the statue had for them. I’d be glad to share my perspective with you if you like, but I haven’t and I won’t let it guide my decision about displays on the Pentacrest.

My hair (what’s left of it) is a good deal shorter that it was when I was a student at Berkeley, and my beard is gone, but my commitment to free speech is undiminished.

The weather is warming up and I hope to soon see a lot of students and others expressing their opinions, whatever those might be, on our campus.

Tom Rocklin is the UI vice president for Student Life.

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