Do officials at our colleges and universities really believe that students must be penned into a tiny zone where free speech is authorized – or is it that only certain kinds of free speech must be so restricted?
Hostility to free speech on college campuses has become one of their salient characteristics. Speech codes that make it dangerous for students (or anyone else) to say things that might be regarded as offensive or “harassing” are all too common, even though when they have been challenged in court, the codes have been found to violate the First Amendment.
Another means of limiting free speech that college officials have used is the “free speech zone” tactic. That allows them to claim that they aren’t against students exercising their First Amendment rights, but are merely imposing a reasonable regulation on them.
Officials at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Michigan have done precisely that. Under university rules, students have full expressive rights, but only if they are inside two very small areas on campus amounting to about .02 percent of its area. Moreover, students must first obtain permission from officials before they engage in any speech or expressive activity.
University officials have complete discretion to restrict the content of speech within the zones and under the speech zone policy, students cannot speak spontaneously on campus for any purpose. In short, speech isn’t free at GVSU, but is subject to strict regulation.
In October, several GVSU students affiliated with the group Turning Point USA were peacefully talking with other students about the Constitution’s protection of free speech against governmental interference. They also encouraged them to write their ideas about free speech on a large beach ball.
Those activities did not obstruct anyone, but they were taking place outside of the zone. Before long, administrators and campus security personnel approached the students and told them that they were in violation of the speech zone policy. Unless they stopped immediately, they would be arrested for trespassing and subject to penalties under the university’s Code of Conduct for Students – penalties that could be as slight as a written warning or as severe as expulsion.
Rather than meekly complying with the administration, the students are taking them to court, with the able legal assistance of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
ADF’s complaint (available here) in Turning Point USA v. Trustees of Grand Valley State sets forth all the pertinent facts, including the one that reveal’s the university’s hypocrisy. Following the presidential election, groups of students protested against Donald Trump’s election outside of the two free speech zones, but were not told to stop by school officials. Thus it appears that GVSU not only infringes upon students’ First Amendment rights, but compounds the injury by engaging in viewpoint discrimination, a violation of their rights to equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The case was filed on November 29. It will be interesting to follow. The law is strongly against the university. Will the officials waste taxpayer money in a fight to protect their authority to control who may say what and where?