Campus Free Speech Zones: They’re Not What They Sound Like
September 14, 2013
We live in a nation of euphemisms: from “police action” as another term for war to “downsizing” as a way to avoid saying “layoffs,” Americans are increasingly becoming accustomed to meaning one thing and saying another. If, like me, you don’t see this as a positive development, you may be dismayed to know that our nation’s campuses are doing their part to encourage this culture—and one way they do it is by establishing “free speech zones.”
As an American (and, of course, a free speech advocate), I love the sound of this one. Heck, isn’t America the greatest free speech zone the world has ever known? Unfortunately, though, on our campuses, free speech zones aren’t a reason to celebrate—because in too many cases, the existence of a free speech zone serves simply to make the rest of campus a censorship zone.
The problem is widespread. A survey of the more than 400 schools included in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Spotlight speech codes database indicates that approximately 1 in 6 of America’s largest and most prestigious schools have designated areas where speech is supposedly free, leaving speech on the rest of campus explicitly unfree. (Disclosure: I am FIRE’s Senior Vice President.) I say “supposedly” because even many “free speech zones” still have time limits, waiting periods, and approval regimes that students must navigate in order to claim their (now laughable) right to speak.
FIRE’s latest video tells the shameful story of these free speech zones, concentrating on perhaps their most recent defeat in court, at the University of Cincinnati, which threatened libertarian students with arrest if they left the tiny free speech zone in order to college signatures for a statewide right-to-work initiative.
While this story had a happy ending, the battle to end these zones isn’t over. Not even in the state of Ohio, where, only 100 miles away, Columbus State Community College was sued last month for telling students they could only pass out pro-life flyers in —guess where!— the school’s tiny free speech zone. I guess word travels slower than you’d think between the academics in Cincinnati and Columbus. Does your favorite school have a free speech zone? Check it out on FIRE’s database, and if it does, consider writing administrators there and asking them why they’re so scared of free speech. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a response.