Northern Arizona University students who were passing out American flags Friday in remembrance of 9/11 got a bigger response than they expected.
No fewer than four university officials and a police officer descended on the group, accusing them of hindering foot traffic and lacking an advance permit.
"9/11 is very important to me," said student Stephanee Freer. "That's why I do the event. Every year, I do something for 9/11 and it's never been disrupted like this."
University spokesman Tom Bauer said it had nothing to do with what they were saying and everything to do with keeping traffic moving.
"I don't think that this is a freedom of speech issue. We were not asking them to be quiet. We were not asking them to leave," he said. "We were asking them to move to a different location within the same area. This is basically clearing the walkways."
Freer said she meant to pass out flags all weekend but canceled the rest of her plans after the dust-up.
INDOOR PERMITS NEEDED
The NAU students were among students at more than 270 colleges and high schools participating in the "9/11: Never Forget Project," which is endorsed by the conservative Young America's Foundation. The University of Arizona also held an event, according to the YAF's website.
Freer videotaped the confrontation, which at various times showed university officials asking the students to go outside, get a permit, or move to the other end of the building where few other students were congregating.
The students handing out flags had originally set up outside the University Union, but spontaneously moved inside after it started raining.
Bauer said permission is easily granted for events held inside, but it must be given.
The students were stationed along a wall a few paces away from Starbucks, just by the main east doors and near the main cafeteria entrances.
Unlike with outdoor demonstrations, students need to get clearance from the Office of Student Life to hold a small event like this indoors, according to the student handbook.
Freer's video shows the small group -- two or three students -- arguing with four university employees, including an associate dean, who asked them to move.
NOT A CLUB
When the rain started and the students brought their flags, pins and bumper stickers inside, an employee at the nearby information desk approached them to ask if they had filled out the university forms to reserve space.
Freer founded the NAU Conservatives club three years ago, and she said university employees recognize her as a leader of the group. However, Freer said she and the other students weren't acting on behalf of the club. Freer is no longer formally in the NAU Conservatives club but works closely with them as a field representative for the Leadership Institute, which supports conservative student clubs at college campuses.
Bauer said that it doesn't matter, though, as the permission process also applies to individuals.
FREE SPEECH -- WITH LIMITS
According to Freer's footage, the first employee to walk up suggested they move outside, to which Freer replied that it was raining.
The second employee, a coordinator from the Office of Student Life, told the students that it is the same policy for all student organizations to reserve indoors space, and that they could move outside or step into a booth up the hall.
Freer said that the booth was out of the way and nobody would see them.
"This is for 9/11," she said. "Do you want to shut down our 9/11 table? Are you unpatriotic?"
She also asked the employee what the First Amendment states, and the employee replied, "Free speech in a designated time, place and manner."
The students vocally sneered at the definition.
After they folded up their small table, not much bigger than a TV dinner tray, a third employee told them the university is within its bounds to regulate the "time, place and manner" where students can assemble.
"You're not following what administration is letting you do," she said.
NOT LOOKING FOR AN INCIDENT
When Associate Dean Deborah Harris approached the students, as shown on the videotape, she said she wanted to reach a compromise that both sides could be happy with and that nobody was judging their project. (She declined further comment Monday.)
Freer replied that they were. She said Monday that she believes she, a conservative, was targeted politically.
"I wasn't waiting for an incident. I wasn't looking for an incident," she said. "This was really about 9/11 and it turned into a free speech violation."
Bauer stressed again Monday that wasn't the case.
"It was just asking you to please take this display and move it over there," he said. "Do the same thing, say the same thing, just not where you are right now."
After the students refused Harris' request to move, a uniformed NAU police officer stopped by to collect the students' names for the administration. A slide at the end of Freer's video said they were not ticketed and the officer said they did not commit a crime.
The NAUPD online crime log does not mention going to the Union for the flag situation nor does it refer to a police report.
The students said they have been summoned by the dean of students office, though. Bauer said Monday that the students would not be disciplined, only that officials wanted to talk with them.
Hillary Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2261.
Web link: http://youtu.be/wI1JcUMNnzE