Campus Free Speech Zones

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Why you (yes, you!) should care.

Amid the ongoing turmoil regarding freedom of expression on college campuses, the issue of “free speech zones” has largely stayed out of the limelight, as debate focused on safe spaces and trigger warnings has flourished. However, the existence of free speech zones is troubling to many, who consider the Bill of Rights (or at least the First Amendment) to apply universally within United States borders, regardless of one’s location.

Often found on college campuses, free speech zones can refer to both periods of time and physical spaces in which student expression is permitted. Use of these time periods and spaces is often also subject to pre-registration and approval requirements that can limit how, when, and where students express their messages.

A number of schools – such as Georgetown, Stanford, and University of Iowa – have come under scrutiny for these policies, particularly by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan policy group that advocates for students’ rights, including freedom of speech, due process, and religious liberty. The organization is currently working on reversing Harvard’s new policy on single-gender social organizations, on the grounds that it violates students’ freedom of association. Their claims against free speech zones on college campuses across the country rest on the fact that these zones and restrictions place an undue burden on students’ right to freedom of expression.

Free speech zones are dangerous because their restrictions can effectively eliminate a great deal of speech from reaching the student body at all. On some campuses, the free speech zones comprise as little as 0.1% of the campus, and are tucked into corners that nearly no one actually visits regularly. To take an extreme example, imagine if Harvard students were only allowed to give out fliers or demonstrate on the lawn of Northwest Labs. A large majority of students would not be exposed to the messages students are trying to express. Luckily, Harvard has not implemented such restrictive policies on our campus, so we often come across various demonstrations, shows, and groups bringing their messages to large swaths of the student body.

Schools who have implemented the restrictions often justify these policies on the grounds that they prevent disruption of the educational experience. While this might apply to loud protests or groups of people blocking entrance to important buildings, it is hard to imagine that the people trying to hand you flyers outside the Science Center on sunny afternoons are really “disrupting our education”. Schools concerned about these particularly disruptive forms of speech should tailor their restrictions to those situations alone, rather than blanketing all speech under the same obstructive policies. This is the route that legal interpretation has taken—so long as policies are not implemented differentially on the basis of content, common sense restrictions are allowed in order to maintain reasonable noise levels and civilians’ ability to travel freely.   

Missouri and Virginia have passed bills prohibiting free speech zones on college campuses. The other forty-eight states should follow suit, pledging a commitment to their students’ First Amendment rights.

Free speech is important for everyone—liberal, conservative, or just passionate about getting members for the cooking club. These policies do not just affect people who are sending a message that the administration doesn’t want students to hear, they are restricting everyone’s speech at the cost of an informed student body. By preventing the campus population from exposure to the, often competing, diverse viewpoints harbored on campus, these restrictions actually result in a less informed, less educated student body. Education is the primary purpose of college education—we should be fighting in favor of speech, not against it.

Emily Hall ’18 ([email protected]) enjoys using her First Amendment rights by writing for the Indy.