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Conservative Law Firm Threatens UW-River Falls With Lawsuit Over Free Speech Policies

Alliance Defending Freedom Alleges Campus Rules Only Allow Registered Student Organizations To Assemble On Campus Property

students on campus
Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

A conservative, Christian law firm is warning the University of Wisconsin-River Falls it may sue if the campus doesn’t change policies it claims stifle students’ free speech.

Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday notifying UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen that a student named Sofie Salmon had retained the advocacy group’s legal counsel in response to an incident on campus in September.

The letter states on Sept. 6, Salmon, a freshman at the time, and her friends were recruiting students for a conservative club on campus near the UW-River Falls student center. The group inflated a large beach ball for students to express their free speech rights by writing messages on it, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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A video, which appears to be recorded by one of Salmon’s friends and posted online by an organization called Campus Reform, shows a woman later identified as UW-River Falls Conference and Contract Services Manager Kristin Barstad telling the group that since they weren’t a recognized student organization they couldn’t assemble on the campus mall.

Barstad told the students the space in question was reservable but only for registered student organizations. Barstad said they could move to a city sidewalk running alongside campus.

WPR asked Salmon for comment on the matter, and she referred all media inquiries to Alliance Defending Freedom’s public relations department.

The letter threatening a lawsuit states “limiting student speech to a select location on campus is unreasonable and violates the free speech rights of every student.”

The letter also alleges students who are not part of a registered club are treated “the same as if they were not members of the university community” by the university.

Caleb Dalton, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees students’ rights to assemble and speak.

“Free speech on campus is a real no-brainer. They shouldn’t have to go to an office and reserve a space or ask permission just to be able to talk to other students on the sidewalk,” Dalton said. “So, it’s really ridiculous, clearly unconstitutional, policies, and we hope the university will consider revising them immediately.”

The letter asks the university to identify the policy that prohibited Salmon from speaking on campus and revise its outdoor facility and use policies “to ensure that administrators do not prohibit students from speaking spontaneously in public outdoor areas.” It concludes by giving Van Galen until Monday, Feb. 24 to make the changes.

“Absent such assurances, our client will be forced to consider litigation to vindicate her rights,” the letter states.

In an email to WPR, Beth Schommer, UW-River Falls spokesperson and executive assistant to the chancellor, sent links to the UW System policy regulating the use of university facilities. It states that facility use by people or organizations not associated with an institution “must be invited by an organization associated with that institution.”

Schommer also sent UW-River Falls’ current policy, which she said is currently unavailable online because it’s being updated in relation to remodeling of the campus dining center. That document states that “organizations and groups not affiliated with the university” must negotiate a contract with administration spelling out “terms of the agreement.” It continues to say “when anyone involved in university facilities use becomes aware of a potentially controversial speaker or event being scheduled on campus, they are asked to inform the UW-River Falls Public Information Officer (PIO) as soon as possible.”

Schommer said any formal response to the letter will be made in consultation with the UW System Office of General Counsel.