- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia Community College System relaxed its policy governing student speech and demonstrations Tuesday, less than a month after being sued by a student who was barred from preaching on campus.

Community colleges spokesman Jeff Kraus said the executive committee of the system’s 15-member governing board unanimously approved a new policy that eliminates so-called free-speech zones, which confined student expression to designated areas. The new policy takes effect immediately.

Thomas Nelson Community College student Christian Parks filed a lawsuit last month claiming his free-speech rights were violated when campus police, citing the community college system’s policy on student demonstrations, ordered him to cease preaching in a courtyard at the Hampton school. In papers filed last week in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, lawyers for both sides asked a judge to put the case on hold while they negotiated details of a possible settlement. Kraus said the new policy clears the way for those talks.

Parks‘ attorney, David Hacker of the Christian legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, called the revised policy “a step in the right direction” toward a settlement. However, he had not yet seen a written copy of the policy and was unable to say for sure whether it satisfied all of his client’s concerns.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says about one in six colleges nationwide impose free-speech zones similar to the one targeted by Parks‘ lawsuit, even though such restrictions rarely survive constitutional challenges.

In Virginia, the lawsuit wasn’t the only impetus for change. A new state law takes effect July 1 curtailing public colleges’ authority to limit student expression on campus.

The old policy, which applied to all 23 Virginia community colleges, allowed demonstrations or other expressive activity only by members of recognized student organizations. The organizations had to give notice four days in advance, and the activity was restricted to an area negotiated by the applicants and college administrators.

Under the new policy, outdoor areas are open to spontaneous speech by all students as long as they aren’t substantially disruptive. Students wishing to reserve campus facilities for a demonstration or distribution of literature must give notice one day in advance. Colleges may designate certain indoor areas - administrative offices and libraries, for example - as off-limits for expressive activity, but those restrictions must be applied uniformly and not be based on the content of the speech or the possible reaction to it.

“Indoors or outdoors, colleges shall not interfere with the rights of individuals and groups to the free expression of their views or impermissibly regulate their speech based on its content or viewpoint,” the new policy says.

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