All he wanted to do was receive permission from his school to gather signatures across campus for a time-sensitive, statewide right-to-work ballot initiative in which he and his student group, Young Americans for Liberty, were participating.
Because the University of Cincinnati is a public university bound by the First Amendment, he shouldn’t have needed to ask permission. As the Supreme Court held in Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc’y of NY, Inc. v. Vill. of Stratton (2002), “It is offensive—not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society—that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.”
But Morbitzer registered his request with college authorities anyway. When word came through that his request was denied, Morbitzer was shocked. He was further told that if he and his group were seen gathering signatures outside of the school’s tiny and restrictive “free speech zone,” campus security would be called and they could be arrested.
“I think it is absurd that they were threatening to put me in jail for exercising what is a constitutional right,” said Morbitzer in a new video documenting his experiences.
The free speech zone Cincinnati wanted Morbitzer to restrict his speech to was an out-of-the-way patch of grass that comprised just 0.1% of the school’s 137-acre campus. What’s more, for every day that he wanted to use the space, he would need to submit a new request—five days in advance.
Concerned that he might not gather many signatures if confined to the free speech zone, Morbitzer took a bold step: he challenged the university’s policy with a lawsuit. In the latest video put together by my organization, theFoundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), we took a look at Morbitzer’s lawsuit and the problem of free speech zones across the country.
As the video notes, free speech zones are common on campuses, despite their continued defeats in the courts of law and the court of public opinion. Roughly one in six of America’s top 409 schools maintain restrictive free speech zones, according to data collected from FIRE’s Spotlight database of campus speech restrictions.
But they are not just a unique quirk of the higher education industry. You can also find free speech zones in our national parks and inside barbed wire cages outside of our political conventions.
In FIRE’s video, a bystander watches as park rangers arrest a couple for handing out flyers near, ironically enough, Independence Hall. Unnerved by the situation, the bystander asks the rangers what their blatant censorship teaches children.
As Greg Lukianoff argues in his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of America Debate, the lessons learned on campus can often extend themselves into society at large. These lessons can lead regular citizens and even everyday civil servants, like park rangers and politicians, to act upon fundamental misunderstandings of the civil rights enumerated by our Constitution.
But despite these misunderstandings, the important thing to remember about a constitutional right is that it is yours, despite what any person, government, or university regulation might say to the contrary. If you must ask the state permission to use it far in advance, can only exercise it in a tiny spot, and can be arrested if you ignore those rules, that right is not being respected.
Even though we have things like free speech zone policies that fly in the face of the First Amendment, the good news is that the First Amendment still exists, and it still protects freedom of speech. And when students like Morbitzer stand up to these policies, they win.