Saunie Schuster explains First Amendment rights to BGSU students, faculty

Stepha Poulin and Stepha Poulin

Saunie Schuster, a doctor of jurisprudence, put her law degree to use by explaining First Amendment rights to students and faculty members in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union on Monday. She spoke with about 20 people about their First Amendment rights on a college campus in her second presentation of the day.

At the beginning of the session, Schuster encouraged attendees to test her knowledge.

“I hope you challenge me. I hope you ask me hard questions,” Schuster said.

The session focused on free speech at a public university such as BGSU. Schuster’s goal was to “lay the foundation about the first amendment,” she said.

As a public university, BGSU must honor the First Amendment just as any other governmental body. The University’s policy can’t interfere with the rights afforded to U.S. citizens in the First Amendment, including:

— Freedom of speech/expression.

— Freedom of religion.

— Freedom of the press.

— The right to assemble.

— The right to petition.

“There’s so much challenge, particularly on public university campuses, about free expression and the fact that we know free expression isn’t really free,” Schuster said. “It often times bears unreasonably on one group of individuals over another group of individuals.”

According to a 2018 survey released by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, 77 percent of Americans support the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees.

Similarly, Schuster believes the First Amendment is vital to protecting Americans from unwarranted governmental control of speech.

“I believe in free exchange; I believe that if the government is given the power to control our opinions or our voices, that’s a bad thing,” Schuster said.

Schuster provided examples of speech on a college campus, such as students screaming profanity at a sporting event.

She asked if profanity is protected speech, and in the spirit of freedom of expression, alumnus Terry O’Brien replied, “F— yeah.”

“Protected speech” is speech that’s protected from government restrictions and regulations; however, not all speech is protected speech.

O’Brien asked if some at a sporting event could say, “Kill the other team.”

“Of course,” Schuster said. “Does it mean you’re really gonna kill them? No.”

If someone yelled out, “I’m going to kill Lebron James,” that would still be protected speech, as the statement isn’t a direct threat, she said.

Since the statement was yelled at a sporting event, the entire crowd heard it. It wasn’t necessarily directed at a specific player.

“These elements are so contextually bound,” Schuster said. When considering the First Amendment, you need to be “aware of the exceptions and how they’re applied. … You know what constitutes free expression, and you know that the location makes a difference.”

If a location is open to the public, limitations on speech are rare. While some may consider certain statements harmful, those statements may not be considered harmful in a legal sense.

However, non-public spaces can have a lot of restrictions placed on expression. For example, a residence hall is a non-public space. BGSU could place restrictions on who can do what in a residence hall despite being a public university.

Schuster stressed the importance of knowing how free speech affects our expression. Yet many people fail to understand the basics of the First Amendment.

One out of 1,009 respondents surveyed could correctly name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, according to the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Forty percent of respondents couldn’t name a single freedom guaranteed by it.

Schuster’s mission is to further citizens’ understanding of those freedoms.

“You can’t take down or erase bulletin boards that say, ‘I hate f–s’ but leave up the one that says, ‘I love queer people.’ You can’t make viewpoint-based decisions about what’s happening; but beyond that, restrictions can be pretty extensive.”

Schuster said if someone knows what their rights entail, “you have the capacity yourself to engage this whole quagmire of grayness that constitutes analyzing First Amendment rights.”