John Leo

Keeping protesters a half-mile from the action is becoming a standard tactic, and not just in anti-Bush or anti-war cases. Authorities did a job on Martha Burk and her demonstration against the all-male Augusta National Golf club during the Masters. The sheriff put Burk and her group in a muddy pit, eight feet below street level, far from the club and well out of sight of approaching cars. Anti-Martha demonstrators were allowed closer to the gates than the pro-Martha contingent.

Colleges have adopted this technique, too. At least 20 campuses have set up "free speech zones," thus effectively converting 99 percent of each campus into a giant censorship zone. The authorities usually explain that noisy protests can interfere with classes, though disallowing bullhorns during certain hours would take care of this alleged problem.

To be effective, many protests have to be site-specific. A protest against administrators needs to be mounted at the administration building, not off in some corner where officials can avoid noticing. The real issue is that penning students into one or two small areas strongly appeals to administrators afflicted with an authoritarian bent. Students are now being punished for handing out leaflets in an unauthorized area. Twelve Florida State students were arrested for refusing to move their anti-sweatshop protest to a designated zone.

Some colleges allow free speech outside of designated zones, but not if it is "potentially disruptive." This opens the door to viewpoint discrimination, always a problem on the modern campus. At the University of Houston, a Christmas tree in a campus plaza was taken down as potentially disruptive and a graphic anti-abortion display was forbidden, though pro-lifers complained that many other protests had been allowed in the plaza. Some campus "free speech zones" are being eliminated, largely under pressure from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Protecting the right to protest doesn't have to be one of those dread right vs. left "Crossfire" issues. If we want to improve the level of political debate, each side has to guard the other's right to speak.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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