In August 2017, the University of North Georgia instituted “designated public forum” spaces for students and community members to express their viewpoints to others on campus.
“The idea is that there should be space on campus, it has to be, legally and constitutionally, where folks can express their opinions,” said Dr. Cara Ray, former associate vice president and dean of students, in fall 2017.
The public forums are for speeches and demonstrations between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
University students aren’t limited to the designated public forums to express their viewpoints, but rather can do so anywhere on campus. Other groups, however, are limited to the public forum areas and must make a reservation two days ahead of time.
“Particularly if someone from off-campus wants to come on campus and express their views, which we are a state school, so we have to give them the space to do that, that’s the space we’ve set aside for that,” Ray said.
The blue signs labeled “designated public forum” are placed at the public forum locations on each campus.
Although the signs are new, the principle behind these spaces is not.
The reasoning for making these spaces more visible comes after a lawsuit was filed against Georgia Gwinnett College in December of 2016 after a student, Chike Uzuegbunam, alleged a campus police officer had violated Uzuegbunam’s constitutional rights by making him stop speaking in the designated area, even though he had a reservation and approved materials. The lawsuit is ongoing.
UNG’s previous Expressive Activity Policy was updated to address changes to the University System of Georgia’s (USG) policy after the incident.
“A year prior to the USG policy revision, UNG had already implemented an Expressive Activity Policy that in practice and language opened up the campus for expressive activity for community members by clarifying our language to avoid any misperception that “free speech” was limited to these areas,” Dr. Alyson Paul, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said in an email.
Uzuegbunam continues to utilize these spaces on college campuses and recently visited UNG’s Gainesville campus to “glorify God, tell the gospel, preach the gospel,” he said.
There is one designated area on each campus that is located in the central point of campus.
Originally, the space in Dahlonega was located next to the Memorial Hall gym, but it was moved to the Promenade, a more central location, Paul said.
“It’s a space where they can reasonably expect to encounter people to express their views,” Ray said.
Since these are public forums, the utilization of the space is not limited to students. Religious institutions, political groups or other entities may also use these spaces.
“Off-campus groups do have to reserve that,” Ray said. “We wouldn’t affirm or deny a reservation based on the content of their speech, but it’s to keep it organized.”
Elder Jeren Stevenson, a Mormon, says he uses the space not for debate, but to peacefully express his beliefs to the public.
“We’re not here to argue,” said Stevenson. “[We can be here] as long as we’re trying to keep the peace and we’re in the free speech areas.”
UNG students are free to use the space without a reservation. However, groups of 25 or more are required to reserve a space whether they are community members or students.
Information on how to reserve the space is only located on the University of North Georgia web page under the policy section.
Any persons utilizing the space must abide by UNG policies and procedures for public forums.
“They do have to comply with all of our policies,” Ray said. “[Persons] can’t come on campus and randomly sell your product.”
People utilizing the space cannot impede the flow of traffic or the academic environment.
The University remains “content neutral” and does not endorse or disavow viewpoints, Ray said.
For more information on how to reserve a space, where the forums are located or UNG policies and procedures for Designated Public Forums, visit UNG’s Expressive Activity page.
With reporting by Ashley Brooks and Jake Cantrell