Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 3, 2013

'Campus expression' policy: Is it enforceable?

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A new policy at Northwestern Michigan College requires petitioners and demonstrators to limit activities to a designated “free speech area,” but police enforcement is questionable.

“A college could dream up any policy they want, and I’m not going to, that’s not what I follow,” said Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney. “Our purpose with law enforcement is to keep the peace, protect the safety of a person, and enforce state law. … It would be a very, very rare situation for the police to get involved.”

Classrooms have special protections, Cooney added.

The recently approved “campus expression” policy” is intended to ensure visitors and students can move freely through campus, but not to restrict speech, NMC spokesman Andy Dolan said.

The new policy could get put to the test at NMC’s upcoming barbecue, a fundraiser that typically attracts petitioners and demonstrators.

Bill Wiesner said he again plans to carry a sign that protests homosexuality, as he did at last year’s event. He doesn’t anticipate problems because he stands on a sidewalk.

“It’s public property,” he said.

He believes he should be allowed to distribute gospel tracts anywhere on campus, but agrees classrooms should be off-limits.

Professional petitioner Dennis Rodzik prompted the new policy. Last year, he located himself at a pedestrian “choke point” in a courtyard, but never approached anyone in the food line.

“Number one, it’s rude. They’re trying to enjoy a meal,” he said.

Police threatened to arrest him, but Rodzik argued his First Amendment right to petition, went to his car, called police administrators, and was allowed to return.

“The courts say, as long as you’re not blocking an exit or entrance, if you’re not being disruptive, you have a right to be there,” Rodzik said.

Dolan said it was suggested at the time that NMC make a policy of where petitions or demonstrators are allowed.

Rodzik said he has the legal right to petition anywhere on campus, except inside buildings where he could be considered disruptive. Special interst groups pay him per-signature and he calls out to people from about 15 feet away to ask if they’re a registered voter.

“If you wait until they’re right on top of you, they’ll blow you right away,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’ve got this down to an art and science.”

Rodzik has also had problems at the Traverse Area District Library, which bans petitioning unless approved in advance.

“It’s the same as being too noisy, using a cell phone in a designated quiet area, or bringing in your assistance animals,” said Metta Lansdale, the library’s executive director. “People have the perfect right to do so, but not in every place, and in this public library, our mission is to provide library services.”

Rodzik said he petitions in front of the library, but doesn’t block entry or exit. Police threatened to arrest him in February 2011. After arguing about his constitutional rights, he left. The next day, he talked to police administrators and petitioned there ever since, he said.

“It’s my number one spot,” he said.

Lansdale said she wishes the library policy had more strength.

“We have people who don’t want to walk past that man because he’s aggressive, he’s offensive, and we’d like to get rid of him, and I can’t,” she said.

Lansdale tells patrons to call the police if they believe they’re being harassed.

Rana Elmir, spokeswoman for the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, said their attorneys are studying NMC’s policy because of First Amendment concerns.

“There should be no room for constitution-free zones on campus,” she said.