The lecture of a 1960s radical-turned-scholar at Georgia Southern University Monday spawned controversy for some members of the community, but produced merely a whimper in the form of protests as the event took place.
An increased security presence for the appearance of William Ayers, founder of a United States terrorist organization responsible for bombing political buildings in the 1960s and 70s, was rendered null when the area surrounding the Performing Arts Center remained empty of protesters, signs or any indication that a once controversial figure was speaking inside. According to school policy regarding official demonstrations, however, the scene would have been calm even if thousands had showed to voice their disdain for Ayers.
Like colleges throughout the United States, Georgia Southern has an established free-speech zone to be used by persons wanting to demonstrate, according to school officials. The zone is at the Rotunda outside the Russell Union and an individual or group wishing to protest must register at least two days in advance.
"The university routinely regulates where and when certain kinds of speech are permitted, so that the mission of the university is not impeded," said Christian Flathman, director of Marketing and Communications at GSU. "Request forms must be submitted no later than 48 hours prior to the date and time of the reservation. If a non-campus, non-sponsored speaker is approved, the university shall assign that speaker to the designated free speech zone for the date and time requested."
The Georgia Chapter of The Sons of Liberty, a political group that attended the Ayers event with intent to protest, was turned away Monday because proper registration was not filed with the university. If proper channels were used, the group could have protested, but in an area not viewable by anyone remotely close the PAC.
"The usual free speech zone at Georgia Southern University is by the Rotunda outside the Russell Union, where people who are not members of the University community and have not been invited by a campus organization to speak, can express themselves without interfering with other university activities," said Flathman. "Georgia Southern's free speech zone is solidly upheld by law."
The Rotunda is not directly visible from the PAC and is a nearly 10-minute-walk from the building.
According to Flathman, the university receives a limited number of requests each year for the free speech site and thus, has no plans to add another location. But, "the university does periodically review and update the policy," he said.
Any person or group - like the Sons of Liberty earlier this week - will be removed from campus if they are not in the free speech zone or have not registered to hold a demonstration, according to Mike Russell, director of Public Safety at GSU.
"If someone shows up that has not gone through the proper channels, we have to ask them to stand down," he said.
A similar scenario presented itself in 2006, when former President George W. Bush spoke at the university.
Protestors were told to assemble at the rotunda, more than 600 feet from Hanner Fieldhouse, where the president was speaking - the rotunda is not directly visible from the fieldhouse.
The group that gathered to protest Bush was, eventually, allowed to peaceably march from the rotunda to Hanner.
During the Bush visit, protests spilled onto Statesboro sidewalks and along Fair Road, where according to Michael Graves, staff attorney for the City of Statesboro, there are no free speech zones.
"Statesboro's ordinances do not contain specific guidelines for organization of protests; however, citizens are not allowed to interfere with the ingress and egress of vehicular or pedestrian traffic and may not limit persons from entering or exiting City Hall," he said. "The city asks that all citizens provide notice if they are going to hold an event on city property, so that the city is aware of their activities and may provide police, fire protection and other support as needed."
According to Graves, a permit is required to hold a demonstration per the Statesboro Municipal Code. The party must also notify the police commander of the event, he said.
Free speech zones first rose to prominence in Georgia during the 1998 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, when then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young established zones for protestors to ensure the event ran smoothly.
Zones were again an issue when used to contain protests during the G8 economic summit on Sea Island in 2004.
Critics argue the free speech zones are used to censor protests and infringe on first amendment rights - In many cases, the zones are located far from the event being opposed.
Proponents state the free speech zones protect the safety of those attending a political gathering, and the safety of the protesters - The Supreme Court agrees, ruling that the government may regulate time, place, and manner of expression.
According to Wendell Turner, Statesboro Public Safety Director, protestors and picketers have rarely been a problem in the city.
"We want everyone to be able to gather and express their first amendment rights," he said. "As long as they follow the rules we have in place, they can do that."
Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.