District Court: Campuses Can't Quarantine Free Speech
August 23, 2012
The Huffington Post
When I posted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's (FIRE, where I work) list of the 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech back in March, we chose not to present the schools in any particular order. But it was no accident that we opened our list with the University of Cincinnati. The school had truly earned its place on the list by restricting free speech on campus to a tiny spot that comprised just 0.1 percent of the school's 137-acre campus -- and by threatening students who wanted to get a petition signed outside of that miniscule zone with charges of trespassing.
After requesting and being denied permission to talk to students across campus about a ballot initiative, the UC chapter of Young Americans for Liberty and its president, Christopher Morbitzer, decided to push back. In collaboration with FIRE and Ohio's 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, they filed suit against the university, claiming that its restrictive policy violated the First Amendment. UC dug in its heels; Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine reportedly authorized the use of $200,000 in taxpayer dollars for the university's doomed battle to maintain its speech zone. Yesterday, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio delivered a message in support of freedom of speech, issuing a permanent injunction against UC's unconstitutional policy. Interestingly, this ruling came a single day after UC President Gregory H. Williams suddenly resigned, giving no explanation other than a reference to "personal reasons" for his abrupt departure.
And it's not as if UC wasn't given notice that their policies had jumped the constitutional shark. After all, FIRE first warned UC about its policy being unconstitutional back in 2007 -- and who knows how long it was in effect before that? Yesterday's injunction prevents UC from limiting student speech in outdoor areas unless the restriction is "narrowly tailored to serve a compelling University interest."
In my book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, I talk about my surreal decade-long experience fighting universities' attempts to quarantine speech to tiny zones, despite the fact universities themselves are supposed to serve as "free speech zones" for our whole society. Thankfully FIRE has defeated these restrictions at colleges across the country including University of North Carolina at Greensboro, West Virginia University, Valdosta State University, and Texas Tech University. As each speech code falls, students on that campus regain access to one of the most crucial aspects of a genuine education: free and open debate.