When you think of a place where order takes precedence over liberty, where the government regulates every minute aspect of civil life, you may well think of Singapore. Over the years, Singapore has made the news for everything from caning an American teenager for vandalism to banning chewing gum to fining people for failing to flush public toilets. But if you think Singapore and the United States don’t have much in common, think again. We need only look to that supposed bastion of liberty—the American university—to find common ground.
Singapore maintains a Speakers’ Corner (you can see a picture here), where Singaporeans can exercise their freedom of speech between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. To speak there, they “only need to register their intention to speak at the Kreta Ayer Neighbourhood Police Post and bring along their passports or identity cards as proof of their citizenship” and avoid topics that “touch any racial or religious sensitivities.” Now, you may be reading this and thinking, “thank goodness we have a First Amendment in this country, and aren’t subject to restrictions like this.” But students at many public universities—bound by the First Amendment—are in fact subject to eerily similar restrictions!
Take the Public Forum Regulations Policy at McNeese State University in Louisiana, for example. That policy establishes two “Public Demonstration Zones,” in which—and only in which—“individuals may speak on campus one time per week” for “up to two hours,” and where “organized groups may demonstrate on campus once during each Fall, Spring, and summer session.” Moreover, “application to utilize Public Forum areas must be received and approved at least 72 hours in advance,” eliminating the possibility of a spontaneous demonstration in response to quickly unfolding events. Speeches and demonstrations may take place between dawn and dusk, Monday through Friday.
You may also remember Texas Tech’s famed “Free Speech Gazebo,” a structure approximately 20 feet in diameter that served as the sole free speech area for a campus of 28,000 students, before a federal court forced the university to open all traditionally public areas of its campus to free speech.
If these policies outrage you, they should—public universities that quarantine free speech to small areas of campus and/or place onerous administrative restrictions on the exercise of free speech (prior reservations, excessive limits on length or frequency of demonstrations, etc.) are disregarding their obligation to uphold the First Amendment rights of their students. Our students deserve much better.