Victory for Chalking in Bellingham

News Release: 
Monday, November 2, 2009

Proponents of free speech literally chalked up a victory on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham. In 1999, WWU administrators proposed new guidelines for writing messages in chalk on Red Square plaza that would unreasonably limit who could write messages and what they could say. The guidelines stated that messages could be written only by groups, thereby barring individual members of the community from writing any messages at all. Also troubling was the requirement that students complete a form stating in advance the exact intent of their message – an unacceptable form of self-censorship and prior restraint on free speech. The enforcement procedures raised concerns that school officials could make arbitrary determinations as to what speech would have been allowed.

Alerted to the problem by students and members of our Whatcom County Chapter, ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan proposed to administrators a chalking policy that addressed both the concerns of the University about hate speech and to protect students’ rights of freedom of expression. Adopting ACLU recommendations, WWU agreed to open Red Square to expression by anyone on a first-come, first-served basis and to hose down the area every week.

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