“The Death of Free-Speech Zones,” reads a recent headline in Inside Higher Education. It’s a demise that anyone who believes in the First Amendment can cheer.
The zones were intended to mollify college students who (rightfully) protested the proliferating rules aimed at restricting their ability to speak up on campus. Want to say what’s on your mind? Just walk over here, to this one specific piece of real estate, and say it. Problem solved! Except it wasn’t.
For one thing, the zones that campus administrators so generously deeded to their students were often ludicrously small (at Pierce College in Los Angeles, for example, it was about 600 square feet, or roughly the size of three parking spaces). Others were located in campus areas that placed students out of the way of most foot traffic.
In some cases, it was worse: You couldn’t simply go to one of these zones and start handing out your literature, or begin speaking. You had to reserve the space beforehand. “At the University of South Dakota, a student needs to reserve a free-speech spot at least five days in advance,” the Inside Higher Education article notes.
But logistical problems were the least of it. Even if the zones were larger, more accessible, and could be used spontaneously, you’re still dealing with a cowardly “solution” that violates the Constitution. It’s a shame to have to point out the obvious, but these administrators don’t seem to realize that the entire campus is already a free-speech zone. And not because they allow it, but because it’s located in the United States of America.
I call it cowardly, of course, because these zones only cropped up in the wake of the insane assault on free speech that’s been occurring on campuses for some time now. Students raised in politically correct bubbles have arrived on campus blissfully unaware that anyone disagrees with their worldview. So when, say, a speaker shows up to criticize affirmative action, or pro-life students begin handing out flyers on abortion, they can’t handle it.
I don’t mean they offer a counterview. That would be fine, of course. Everyone’s free-speech rights would be honored in that case. No, they form mobs. They yell, shriek and shout down those with whom they disagree. They attack them, both verbally and physically. “Triggered” by the horror of a different point of view, they have a meltdown.
Have administrators reacted to these tantrums by standing up for the Constitution? Used these “teachable moments” to educate their young charges in the process of civilized debate?
Very few, unfortunately. Many tucked tail and surrendered to student demands. They’ve cravenly disinvited speakers and, yes, restricted students to “free-speech zones.”
Fortunately, some brave students and organizations -- such as Intercollegiate Studies Institute (where I’m a trustee), Students for Liberty, the Leadership Institute, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- have been challenging these zones in court. And they’ve been succeeding.
“In the last year, state legislatures, including those in Colorado, Tennessee and Utah, have stepped in and banned free-speech areas,” according to Inside Higher Education. “Virginia, Missouri and Arizona also previously outlawed the zones. Florida’s Legislature will consider a bill this session that wouldn’t allow them.”
The zones are hanging on in some locations, so the job isn’t finished. But Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, thinks their days are numbered. “Every public college in America is going to do away with the notion of free-speech zones,” he predicts.
Free speech is hard. The fact that John Adams, of all people, could sign the Alien and Sedition Acts is proof of that. That’s why we should be grateful this key right is enshrined in the Constitution. Even then, as we see throughout our history and right down to the present day, we must fight to maintain it.
Don’t let the bullies win. Let’s all speak up proudly for the right to disagree -- and ensure that the U.S. again becomes one giant free-speech zone.