Cognitive dissonance

August 23, 2007

Last fall, AWARE, a women’s advocacy group at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, wanted to reserve a high-profile space on campus for a bake sale illustrating the wage inequality between male and female workers. The university denied the request.


Instead, it sent AWARE to the campus’ “free-speech zone,” a small area reserved for demonstrations and protests on the Lower Plaza. According to Jeff Davis, director of UCCS’ University Center, the decision to deny the request lay in the conclusion that the group’s message reflected a political agenda.


However, prior to AWARE’s petition, the College Republicans held their Global Warming Beach Party on the Upper Plaza—with university approval. The purpose of the “beach party” included the refutation of several theories regarding the nature of global warming. A banner promoting Ed Jones’ state Senate campaign hung conspicuously from one of the event tables.


When asked about the free-speech zone and the decision to direct AWARE to the reserved area, Davis responds, “As an institute of higher ed, we support free speech, but the area designated for that is the Lower Plaza.”


Roots in Vietnam



Free-speech zones are designated areas in which any individual or group at any time can speak freely, conduct demonstrations, protest or lobby, regardless of message or affiliation. A large number of universities across the United States created these areas in the 1960s and 1970s in attempts to control Vietnam War protesters.


In recent years, several universities have expanded their free-speech zones, thanks partly to advocacy groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).


Alan Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey Silverglate, an attorney, founded FIRE in 1999 after they co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, a book that traces illiberal university policies back to philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance.” The book’s release inspired hundreds of students to write letters to the authors, detailing their proceedings with university officials. Copious categorical accounts of despotism incited Kors and Silverglate to start the advocacy organization.


FIRE campaigns for free speech on public campuses as part of its Individual Rights Defense Program. The program encourages students and faculty to submit rights-infringement cases through its Web site, thefire.org. Occasionally, FIRE refers individuals to a group of pro bono attorneys. Since its inception, FIRE’s legal team has defeated speech-zone and code defenders at Shippensburg University, Texas Tech University, Citrus College and the State University of New York at Brockport.


Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, battles speech-rights infringements by providing aid to individuals through legislative counsel.


“The college campus itself should be the ultimate free-speech zone,” says Harris in an e-mail interview. “Therefore, any policies that restrict the exercise of free speech to small or out-of-the-way areas of campus are entirely inappropriate.”


Despite claims of social injustice by groups like FIRE, some maintain that these zones actually promote egalitarianism. Robert Wonnett, an architecture Ph.D. candidate at UCCS, is focusing on free-speech zones for his dissertation research. Wonnett insists that the areas serve the higher purpose of allowing students and faculty to interact without their status interfering outside of the classroom.


“There is more freedom on the lawn,” he says. “This centering is the location of some type of equality. Freedom of speech is not absolute. You have to consider where you’re at, the authority of the organization and who you are.”


Davis agrees. He defends the enforcement of the zone at UCCS by asserting that its purpose promotes the academic mission of the campus—free speech within limits.


Time, place and manner



But do these limits infringe upon an individual’s First Amendment rights? According to James Colvin, political science professor at UCCS, these zones are “not unconstitutional as long as the time, place and manner controls for the use of the free-speech zones are viewpoint-neutral. To be otherwise is to engage in prior restraint.”


Debates regarding the speech rights of individuals rise when universities are inconsistent with time, place and manner, explains Josh Dunn, another professor in the political science department.


“The difficulty the university has is being consistent with the free-speech zones,” he says. “When they restrict speech based on content, they really do expose themselves to litigation.”


Although CU-Boulder, CU-Denver and UCCS all operate under the University of Colorado system, each campus designates and enforces its own policy regarding free speech. All policies are independently drawn, then approved and signed by the campus’ chancellor. No overarching policies for the system exist, making uniformity in regulation and zoning next to impossible.


The future of free-speech zones remains tentative. According to Dunn, when organizations like FIRE expose draconian policies, universities run the risk of incurring large legal and court fees, making zone enforcement a potential financial liability.


“The schools will lose money doing this sort of thing,” says Dunn. “If groups continue the lawsuits, the universities will be forced to change the free-speech zones.” 
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