The University of Wisconsin-River Falls Suppresses Conservative Speech

When Sofie asked why and what policy forbade her from speaking, Ms. Barstad was unable to cite a specific policy but stated that even though Sofie was a student she would have to pay to reserve space to engage in expression.

University of Wisconsin River Falls

A freshman at UW-River Falls, Sofie Salmon, was attempting to start a Turning Point USA group last September on her campus. In order to draw interest to her conservative group, she and a few friends rolled a beachball around campus, calling it a “free speech ball.” Other students were encouraged to express themselves by writing a message on the ball, and to sign up for membership in the new group.

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal group that is representing Ms. Salmon, “Sofie did not block any sidewalks, impede traffic, hinder instruction, or in any way disrupt the campus educational environment. She stayed only in public outdoor areas where other students often walk and talk.”

Yet that wasn’t enough for UW-River Falls Conference and Contract Services Manager Kristin Barstad, who approached Ms. Salmon and demanded that she stop immediately. 

According to ADF: “When Sofie asked why and what policy forbade her from speaking, Ms. Barstad was unable to cite a specific policy but stated that even though Sofie was a student she would have to pay to reserve space to engage in expression. The only place she could speak without permission from the University, Sofie was told, is on the public sidewalk on the edge of campus.”

The college administrator—Barstad—then told Sofie Salmon that if she didn’t stop having the students sign the beachball, the police would be called and she would be arrested. A video taken by one of the students shows Barstad threatening to call the police over the “free speech ball.” Barstad said that Ms. Salmon was violating UW-River Falls policies that could be viewed on the website. 

Later, Sofie Salmon searched the school’s website to find the policy that Barstad spoke of, and was unable to locate any such policy. Salmon emailed Barstad about this, and received no response. 

“I looked all over the website and haven’t been able to locate any information on policies we might have violated, nor the policy requiring payment for the use of space,” said Sofie Salmon.

It’s reasonable to ask whether Barstad would have acted accordingly if it was a student group that had a different political-bent. It is possible that administrators use vague speech rules to selectively hinder speech that they do not like. ADF has thus sent a letter to UW-River Falls asking them to clarify their policy on campus speech. In the letter, ADF correctly cites that students have First Amendment free speech rights on public university grounds.