Addressing the Freedom to Petition on YSU Grounds   

By Kelcey Norris

Some would argue the daily routines of Youngstown State University students have been disrupted by an influx of petitioners. To others, this is simply an expression of their First Amendment rights and is causing no harm. 

However, petition circulators on YSU’s campus have become a rising concern for some students and community members throughout the semester.

Students and faculty have been asked to sign petitions to support or oppose local issues related to the use of nuclear power plants in Ohio, while others exercising this right are engaging students about religious beliefs. 

The YSU Police Department noticed an increase in phone calls and complaints in November from the community about the petitioners’ rights to solicit on YSU property. 

“We have a policy through the university that states that university campus grounds can be used for expressive activity, political speech and petitioning being one of those activities,” police Chief Varso said.  

He said students and faculty should think carefully about sharing personal information, which exceeds to what is necessary for the petition signature. 

“If you do want to sign the petition, you are required by law to include your name and your address [and county] where you are registered to vote. You are not required to include a phone number or anything like that,” Varso said. “If they solicit phone numbers, they are not a legitimate petitioner, so walk away.” 

Although the institution allows petitioners to solicit on campus, there are restrictions. 

Varso said the petitioners’ presence should not interfere with the flow of vehicular traffic.  

“Petitioners can be on any open area on the outside areas of campus, with the exception being parking lots and parking decks. Anywhere else like the sidewalks they can go and solicit signatures,” Varso said. 

Although no formal complaints have been filed, Varso said community members took notice of the increase in solicitation in certain areas of campus throughout their daily routines. 

“We did receive complaints that [petitioners] were being a bit too aggressive,” Varso said. “They were following people, and even after the person said no, they still wanted the students to sign the petition.”

Individuals who have been “pushy,” according to Varso, have been removed from employment by their organization. 

Ron Slipski, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, explained the importance of students’ education on public campuses as it relates to the freedom of speech.

This right, as defined in the First Amendment, allows individuals to express their opinions without fear of censorship. 

“There are places on a university campus that are not public forums,” he said. “The court has recognized that even though it’s public property, that the university has to have some degree of control. Otherwise you couldn’t have a classroom.” 

Slipski said the freedom to gather and petition is just as important as a students’ rights to education and comfort on campus.  

“[Petitioners] can’t impede the students’ freedom of movement. They can talk to you, walk alongside you and jabber at you,” Slipski said. “But, they can’t stop you from moving about. They can’t stop you from ignoring them.” 

Additionally, Slipski said that understanding the petition is crucial.

“Lots of times people that are circulating petitions are just trying to get something on the ballot,” he said. “I know a lot of people who will just sign … who may totally disagree with what they’re trying to put on the ballot but agree that they should have the right to put it on the ballot.” 

Community member Tom Carlisle is a different type of petitioner on campus. 

He visited YSU for the first time with one goal: engaging with students to discuss religious salvation. 

Carlisle passes out pamphlets on YSU’s campus, explaining his story and the impact Christianity has on the lives close to him. 

“I’m hoping to talk to students about what the Lord did for my [father] and share the story of how he almost died but got another chance to trust Christ,” Carlisle said. “I want to ask them if they have trusted Christ as their savior.” 

During his first time speaking with students on YSU campus, Carlisle said he was able to spread some joy.