Monday, September 25, 2023

MTSU student demonstrators asked to leave, told library is not a ‘free speech zone.’


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Photo by Loren Bebensee 

Story by Ashley Coker / Staff Writer and Sarah Grace Taylor / Editor-in-Chief

A group of student protesters were told to leave the vestibule of James E. Walker library while gathering to raise awareness about police brutality Monday afternoon.

The demonstration, organized by the Talented Tenth Student Action Coalition, started with seven students holding signs in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group more than doubled in size over the next couple of hours, with 15 to 20 students engaged in conversation at one point.

They planned to be in the library from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., but Dean of the Library Bonnie Allen asked them to take their conversation elsewhere a little after 1 p.m.

“[Allen] came down and told us we needed a permit to talk in front, in this space of the library and that we had to move outside to finish our conversation. And that if we did not move outside, she was going call the cops,” Talented Tenth leader and MTSU sophomore Arionna White said.

White said the students were having a “good, peaceful discussion” when Allen showed up.

“I’m going to have to ask you to take all of this outside because this is not a free speech, it’s not a free zone. You have to ask for permission to use this space. . . .That’s a part of the university policies,” Allen said in a video taken by Talented Tenth member Zaria Walker.

When one student told her another library employee said they could gather in the vestibule, Allen said the protest had “turned into a larger event” than she anticipated and suggested the group go outside again.

“When we first set up in that area a gentleman actually came out and told us we could sit right there, we could talk right there, as long as we weren’t blocking any of the three doorways,” White said.

She said the group was careful to keep the doorways clear, Allen confirmed saying they had been “very cooperative.” 

When several students refused to leave the area, Allen threatened to call the police.  

“After she told us she was going to call the cops my biggest thing was ‘I’m not going anywhere,'” White said. “Especially not when there’s a talk tomorrow about free speech on campus.” 

Allen did not call the police on the students, but maintains their meeting was against policy. While Allen did not want to talk to Sidelines on the record, she later provided the following statement:

At about 2:00 today there were 20-25  students gathered in the vestibule space to the Walker Library.  There were about 6 students with Black Lives Matter signs sitting on the floor or standing talking to a gathering of students.  This has begun about noon.    I  asked the students to take the demonstration out of the building into the quad. I further explained that the campus has policies governing the use of building space on campus with a process of obtaining permissions for space use. No permissions were sought in this case. I explained that campuses frequently  have zones designated for demonstrations, speeches etc without prior permission,  these are often called ‘free speech zones”. On this campus that area  is in the quad in front of the new student union. I talked with several of the students individually and took them to the university policies so they have the information they need

While MTSU has policies that regulate official student organizations and events, there are no policies about where individual students can get together and have a conversation.

Students are required to submit an application to the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership to reserve space on campus in advance, but not filling out an application does not prevent students from using space that has not been reserved by someone else.

“The Application for Use of Facilities form is required for all space reservations on campus for student organizations, departments and outside entities. It basically books the space you need to hold events on campus,” according to MTSU’s website.

The Talented Tenth has silent protests scheduled at various campus locations every afternoon for the rest the week. White said the group has no intention of changing their plans.

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To contact News Editor Amanda Freuler, email

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  1. Until now, I was unaware that this school had designated “free speech zones” and this concept is a little backwards to me. I am having a hard time understanding why a public campus would implement policies that constrain demonstrations to certain areas. Is a protest more offensive when it is in front of the library, as opposed to next to the Student Union building? The article even states that the students were cooperative and peaceful in their protest. Yet, they were asked to move because their protest was not in the “proper area”.

    It seems really unfair to me to put limitations on First Amendment rights that belong to the students that attend this university. MTSU did not seem concerned about offending anyone when they allowed the anti-abortion activists to blow up pictures of aborted fetuses on campus. They did not bat an eye when the crazy man that says we are all damned returned to campus to disrupt peace and spew his opinions. I am glad that this group of students refused to move from the library when they were initially asked. I agree with their decision to push the limitations and reject authority, because that kind of attitude promotes change. I think that the school should be promoting and encouraging free speech, not trying to stifle it to certain areas on campus in an effort to not upset anyone.

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