‘Free-speech zones’ popping up on campuses nationwide

EBy Jan Montry

Oregon Daily Emerald
University of Oregon

eUGENE, Ore. (U-WIRE) – When a group of students camped at Johnson Hall in April 2000 to protest the University of Oregon’s resistance to joining the Worker Rights Consortium, nobody told them they were outside their “free-speech zone.” Nobody told them they must move to a remote part of campus. In fact, it seemed they recognized only one free-speech zone: everywhere.

Two years later, free-speech advocates and administration officials around the country are weighing in on what may be an extensive First Amendment battle.

The fight is over “free-speech zones”: small, often remote locations on some university campuses that are designated for free speech. The conflict begins when students are restricted to these locations to protest, demonstrate or speak.

The free-speech zones also raise an important question for opponents: Are the rest of these campuses “censorship zones”?

Many universities are either adopting new free-speech zone policies or enforcing old rules; however, it is unclear when the idea for free-speech zones first arose. Some newspapers report that they were created in the 1960s to control student activism, while others say it was in the 1980s.

Most recently, a group of 12 Florida State University students were arrested for protesting at the administration building, which is not a free-speech zone. Afterward, the protesters agreed to move their camp to a small area that the university had designated.

Florida State, however, is not the only place where conflict has broken out.

At the University of Houston, a legal battle ensued when administration officials refused to let Pro-Life Cougars, an anti-abortion group, display pictures of dead fetuses in a high-traffic area. After a judge ruled the university must allow the display, the administration created four free-speech zones in small, low-traffic areas.

Although the number of universities enforcing these policies is unclear, free-speech zones are currently active at many locations, including Florida State, West Virginia University, the University of Houston and the University of Mississippi.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled twice — once in 1957 and again in 1969 — in favor of free speech on college campuses. In the 1957 ruling, the court wrote: “To impose any straightjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our nation.”

But free-speech zones haven’t imperiled the University — yet.

A University policy statement on Physical Plant, Equipment and Facilities states that “all activities to be held in outdoor campus locations are subject to prior scheduling through the Scheduling Officer of Erb Memorial Union.” The policy also establishes the EMU Amphitheater as a “free-speech plaza” which may be used at any time for free-speech purposes.

Vice President for Student Affairs Anne Leavitt said free-speech events are welcomed, as long as they meet time, place and manner requirements, such as not disrupting a class or blocking access to a building.

“It’s not as though you only have free speech in one place,” she said. “We balance free speech with other activities.”

Despite the policy, the University did not interfere with WRC supporters camping outside Johnson Hall, and no actions have been taken to stifle spontaneous protest since then. But the option still remains for the University to restrict free speech to the EMU.

“We have a tradition of people being able to protest (in front of Johnson Hall),” Leavitt said.

Thor L. Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the only public institutions that should enforce free-speech zones are those that “do not have an allegiance with freedom of speech.

“The very existence of these zones are an outrage. At public universities, free-speech zones are manifestly unconstitutional.”

Halvorssen, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, explained that speech can be reasonably restricted based on three criterion: time, place and manner. Designating small and remote areas of campus for these zones, however, is unreasonable based on these rules.

“Free speech is messy,” he said. “But totalitarianism is messier.”