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Students reflect on the "bureaucratic" process of reserving outdoor spaces at UNC

UNC students protest the Genocide Awareness Project being displayed at Polk Place on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. The project is a "mobile display" shown around the country by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-abortion organization with no medical accreditation.

When planning last fall's Democracy Day protest, UNC junior Sam Hiner faced several issues reserving on-campus spaces.

“I found that the booking process was incredibly frustrating and bureaucratic and a lot more drawn out than it needed to be, to the point where I was having heated arguments with certain administrators,” Hiner said.

Most outdoor campus spaces at UNC are open to the public. Some areas are managed by "designated units" that handle scheduling internally, according to UNC Media Relations.  Information about reservable campus spaces is hosted on Reserve Carolina.

Registered student organizations, campus departments and campus-based non-affiliates can book most campus venues on 25Live, the registration tool utilized by the Carolina Union. Requesters must complete access training before they can make their first reservation. To make a reservation, requesters must submit a fifteen-section form with information about their event.

UNC's Facilities Use policy states that UNC permits gatherings in any exterior location, and University-affiliated groups are encouraged to use open space with written approval. Some spaces, like the Y-Court, the Pit and other Major Open Spaces,” do not require prior approval.

Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer for campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), said physical spaces on UNC’s campus are fully bound to the First Amendment. The University must ensure that space usage rules are viewpoint and content-neutral. Greenberg said while private universities promise students the right to free speech on a contractual basis, public universities allow students to demonstrate on a constitutional basis.

FIRE ranked UNC the lowest of nine colleges and universities in North Carolina in its 2024 College Free Speech Rankings. The ranking is based on a compiled student survey that evaluated factors like comfort in expressing ideas, disruptive conduct and administrative support on campus. Of UNC students surveyed in FIRE’s 2024 rankings, 51 percent said they have self-censored on campus at least once or twice a month. 

FIRE rates the written language in UNC’s public space policies, specifically Facilities Use and Freedom of Speech and Expression University Standard, as neutral.

Student organizers note mixed experiences using public spaces on campus for protests and rallies. 

Hiner, the executive director of the Young People’s Alliance, said his group struggled to work within the system for their Democracy Day event. He added that issues he had with booking the event were due to limitations on 25Live preventing the space from being used effectively.

This process of reserving public spaces, he said, could potentially discourage students from organizing demonstrations. 

“Registration and booking any kind of event at UNC is frustrating and difficult,” Hiner said

Christina Huang, president of the UNC Affirmative Action Coalition, also said 25Live is complicated and bureaucratic

“It’s so difficult because you’re making us do a lot of labor that shouldn’t be on us. Why is it so difficult to reserve a space?” Huang said.  

However, Luke Diasio, an organizer for UNC’s chapter of March for Our Lives, said that while he has had issues reserving spaces, he has never had trouble when using outdoor spaces without prior reservations.

“As someone who’s organized protests in the past, I have felt like UNC’s setup for that has been accommodating. I haven’t felt very limited by it,” Diasio said.  

Outreach chair for UNC’s chapter of Planned Parenthood Generation Action Sarah Zhang said student organizations with fewer resources or time might face restrictions using the 25Live tool. 

Zhang said an anti-abortion display in Polk Place last fall was an example of protections surrounding free speech, even if the message was disturbing to some viewers on campus. 

“We had an emergency Planned Parenthood meeting to figure out what we could do, but because they had gone through the University to get a permit, we couldn’t dismantle it,” Zhang said

At FIRE, Greenberg said he advocates for students to counter speech they do not like with “more speech.” He said at a public university, advocacy groups have the right to express views that others may find offensive or hurtful.

“The University can’t violate students' free speech rights by punishing them for their ideas, their viewpoints or for protesting,” Greenberg said

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Clarification: A previous version of this article did not provide a complete perspective of Luke Diasio's statements about UNC's reservation system. The article has been updated to better reflect Diasio's response.