Drake Law Student Decries University’s Free Speech Zone, Restriction of Political Speech

By on December 20, 2011

John Crotty, a law student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, wrote a letter to the editor in last week’s Des Moines Register. The letter speaks for itself: 

I’m a law student at Drake University. I made a sign for the Dec. 10 GOP debate. It was tasteful and not hateful or vulgar in any way. 

I arrived at Drake’s Sheslow Auditorium and quietly took up a position in the grass near the entrance. I was immediately told by campus police that there were "no signs allowed on campus today." 

If I wanted to hold my sign, then I needed to go across University Avenue to the "free speech zone." They said the administration had decided it was important that Drake appear politically neutral. 

I pay $30,000 a year to attend this university. That’s hardly "free" speech, whether I am standing in their designated zone or not. 

The Drake administration is apparently all about civil discourse and student engagement – except for days when there are cameras around, and somebody might actually see it. 

Crotty has it exactly right. FIRE has written about "free speech zones" many times in the past, and we consistently point out that, rather than restricting free speech to remote or tiny areas of campus, universities should make the vast majority of the open spaces on campus open to free speech. Our cases on this point are myriad

Moreover, Drake University should know better than to restrict political speech on campus, as political speech and activity lies at the core of our country’s free speech traditions. It is particularly disappointing to see the university use the rationale of institutional political neutrality to restrict student expression. This is a false argument. As we make clear in detail in our latest Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus, universities need not fear that allowing student political speech and activity to flourish on campus endangers their obligations of political neutrality. 

Political activism has deep roots in Iowa. In fact, the primary reason (pun intended) that the GOP candidates came to the Drake campus to debate at all is that the Iowa caucuses start on January 3, 2012. Drake University even sponsored a straw poll for students. How can a university market itself using appeals to the American political process while, at the same time, restricting student expression?