John Leo

Many colleges now offer special dormitory zones for "the substance-free lifestyle." This means that 99 percent of the campus is a "substance-rich lifestyle zone" where illegal drugs and underage drinking are permitted. Students must fill out application forms to escape "substance-rich" living, i.e., pot, crack, coke, ecstasy, speed and booze.

There is a problem, of course, with the word "substances." Since the whole world is made up of substances, can dorm residents maintain their footing on a "substance-free floor"? Can colleges truly offer a substance-free education? (Never mind. We know the answer to that.)

Many universities play the zone game to inhibit free speech. They announce one or two small "free-speech zones," thus establishing almost all of the campus as a place where speeches, rallies and protests are forbidden. Reminded of the First Amendment by suits and threats to sue, many offending universities have backed down and opened their entire campuses for student expression.

Zone people seem to be everywhere these days. Some churches set aside a few pews as aroma-free zones for believers who use no perfume, cologne or other scents. In the United Kingdom, GM-free zones ban genetically modified food.

Amnesty International once talked about "torture-free zones." Many public schools have "safe zones," on the dubious proposition that student hostility to homosexuals is so widespread that gays can feel safe only in rooms marked with pink triangles.

Pittsburgh, in an effort to prevent harassment outside abortion clinics, set up a "no-speech" zone nears clinic entrances. It's a violation to say anything at all within 15 feet of a doorway or within 8 feet of anyone standing 100 feet or less from any entrance. Zone politics trumps the First Amendment.

What will social historians of the future say about zone thinking? Probably that it is a highly therapized form of moral posturing and a strange attempt to cope with problems and alleged problems by walling off tiny areas. Obsessing over teasing and name-calling, for example, instead of addressing the bigger problem of building character in a troubled culture. More zone-free politics, please.


John Leo

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

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