Many colleges and universities have “free speech zones” where students can speak their minds without fear of administrative reprisal. Outside of the zone, however, speech is subject to censure by campus officials. The speech zone concept is a means for campus bureaucrats to clamp down on something they dislike, namely conflict. If speech is only free on a tiny percentage of the campus, there is less likelihood of clashes between students.
But just because the speech zone concept appeals to campus officials, that doesn’t make it a good, much less legal, policy. Why should students have to stifle their desire to speak about some issue just because they aren’t within the free speech zone? That is hardly compatible with a free society or a robust educational experience.
Moreover, public colleges and universities are constrained by the First Amendment. Their officials are not allowed to impinge upon the freedom of speech unless they have a compelling reason for doing so. The courts have upheld sensible time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, but have taken a dim view of broad rules against speech. Schools that have imposed free speech zones have repeatedly lost when their policies were challenged in court – for example, the University of Cincinnati, which was ordered to stop enforcing its speech zone policy by a federal judge in 2012.
And still, officials keep imposing speech zones, assuming that they have nothing to lose. Creating a speech zone is not going to cause officials any harm if it is later declared illegal. There are no fines or other penalties for trampling upon studentFirst Amendment rights, so campus authorities think, “We might as well give it a try.”
Rather than fighting these battles one campus at a time, it would be far better for state legislators to step in, exert their authority, and declare that no college or university they fund will adopt a speech zone. And that is just what the Florida legislature has done. On March 5, the state senate passed a bill (the Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act) that would prevent officials at state universities from establishing free speech zones.
Quoted in this Washington Times story, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Bob Rommel, said, “I have received thousands and thousands of calls from students that feel their right to speak freely where they want to in outside areas has been infringed upon, and how can they stand up to the big university when they’re just a student struggling to get by.” Under the bill, all outdoor areas on campus would be designated “traditional public forums.”
Commenting on the bill, Demetrius Minor, the Florida coalitions director for Generation Opportunity, said, “(Officials) rationalize these restrictions by claiming they are for the safety and security of students. In reality, they are an abasement of everything that a university education is supposed to be about.”
Minor points out that both left-wing and right-wing students have had their rights violated by restrictive speech zone policies in Florida universities. But free speech shouldn’t be either a left-wing or a right-wing issue. In principle, all students are entitled to their First Amendment rights.
At the time of this writing, the bill awaits Governor Scott’s signature.
The approach Florida has taken to protecting free speech is one other states should copy.