WAC changes and controversy

Draconian restrictions on campus speech averted, sort of

by Casey Jaywork | Editor in Chief

Pending approval by the Seattle Community Colleges (SCC) Board of Trustees, the Washington State Code (WAC) governing use of community college campuses will be changed.  While faculty expressed satisfaction with the changes, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of WA says that portions of the new code are still unconstitutional.

The changes clarify a ban on overnight camping on school grounds. They also remove language explicitly protecting “peaceful dissent,” which Derek Edwards of the WA Attorney General’s office explained would be implicitly covered by the more basic First Amendment protections in the US Constitution. “If it’s not prohibited [by the WAC], then it’s permitted,” he said. Language requiring that commercial activities on campuses be both educationally relevant and hosted by part of the school was rephrased. The part of the new rule the ACLU objects to is a requirement that non-campus groups sign-in before practicing free-speech activities on campus.

The Oct. 22nd hearing for public comments on the changes was attended by fewer than a dozen people. This was in stark contrast to last year’s public outcry against the originally proposed changes, which would have imposed draconian restrictions on campus speech. As the ACLU said in an open-letter to SCC at the time, “The proposed changes to WAC 132F pose serious constitutional problems, unduly burden free speech, and would unnecessarily restrict the vital exchange of ideas on a public college campus.”

In the face of public outcry, SCC convened a task force comprised of “representatives from student government, faculty, staff, and the external community” to amend the proposed WAC changes, according to Carin Weiss, Vice Chancellor for SCC.

The new proposed changes to the WAC are much more acceptable to First Amendment advocates, according to South SCC professor Don Bissonnette, who commented at the Oct. 22nd hearing. “Basically it’s no camping and no causing major disruptions,” he said. “It allows people the right to speak, assemble, be loud, be everything except violent.”

Kimberly Mcrae, AFT co-president and Seattle Central professor, said that while the new WAC changes are more specific in banning overnight camping, “Overall, nothing’s changed.” Her colleague Deborah Higdon agreed, saying, “We went back to where we were. Now the question that the readership of the Circuit might want to ask themselves is, why was this rush led by the chancellor to completely gut the US constitution on our campus?”

However, the Seattle Times reports that in an Oct. 21st letter to the SCC Board of Trustees, the ACLU wrote that the new WAC still “triggers constitutional concerns because it requires registration prior to engaging in the most basic and treasured form of protected political speech (i.e. flyering, handbilling, pamphleteering, proselytizing, etc.)…”

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