FIRE Letter to Valdosta State University President Ronald M. Zaccari Regarding VSU’s Free Speech Zone

By on June 13, 2008

June 13, 2008

President Ronald M. Zaccari
Office of the President
Valdosta State University
1500 N. Patterson Street
Valdosta, Georgia 31698-0180

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (229-333-7400)

Dear President Zaccari:

FIRE is disappointed to write to you once again about Valdosta State University’s (VSU’s) policies impermissibly restricting free expression on campus. Despite receipt of FIRE’s letter of November 30, 2007, and numerous public admonitions, VSU continues to maintain an unconstitutional “free speech zone,” limiting free speech to just one shockingly small area of the VSU campus.

As we stated in our previous letter, VSU’s “Free Expression Area Guidelines”maintained by the Student Conduct Office and published in the Student Handbookare replete with constitutional infirmities. The Guidelines continue to violate VSU’s legal and moral obligation as a public institution to uphold the First Amendment.

Specifically, the Free Expression Area Guidelines read:

Persons wishing to speak on campus may use the Free Expression Area (FEA) after following the appropriate reservation process. The designated site for the Free Expression Area at Valdosta State University is the stage on the Palms Quadrangle on main campus; only one person or group may utilize the area at a time. The hours of NOON [sic] to 1PM and/or 5PM to 6PM are the designated times for its use.

First priority for the use of University Facilities will be given to student, academic, or administrative functions at the University. Community use of University facilities must have an educational or cultural purpose. To avoid conflicts in scheduling, reservations for the Free Expression Area should first be made through the Dean of Students Office, who will then contact the Events Services Office to determine if the Free Expression Area is available. 48 hours advanced notice is required, and this notice will not be waived.

Provisions for use of the area:

1. There shall be no interference with the free flow of traffic nor the ingress and egress to buildings on the campus.

2. No interruption of the orderly conduct of University classes or other University activities.

3. No commercial solicitations, campus sales, or fund-raising activities shall be undertaken not sponsored by authorized students or the University.

4. The person who makes the reservation shall be responsible for seeing that the area is left clean and in good order.

As explained in our previous letter, VSU’s Free Expression Area Guidelines are unquestionably not the narrowly tailored “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions on speech permissible under the First Amendment as set forth by the Supreme Court in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989).

FIRE has several specific concerns with regard to VSU’s Guidelines. Quarantining free expression on VSU’s 168-acre campus to just one single stage located on the Palms Quadrangle on the school’s Main Campus displays sheer contempt for the role of free and unfettered communication in a modern liberal education. This limitation alone is enough to render the regulation unconstitutional, but VSU compounds the offense to liberty both by restricting free speech within that tiny zone to a mere two hours a day and by requiring two days advanced notice for use of the zone. To make matters yet worse, the Free Expression Reservation Form required of prospective speakers conditions the right to free expression on the speaker’s ability to maintain “order and decorum.” Not only does this provision impermissibly rely on untenably vague terms like “decorum” in determining who may speak, it also effectively grants the power to censor anyone who disagrees enough to be deemed “indecorous.”

These infirmities must be accounted for; VSU’s current policy cannot stand.

Again, FIRE must stress that maintaining “free speech zones,” as VSU’s policy does here, critically undermines the fundamental conception of the American public university as a true “marketplace of ideas.” Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of N.Y., 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967). Indeed, FIRE’s November 30 letter detailed relevant case law declaring restrictive “free speech zones” unconstitutional on public campuses. In Roberts v. Haragan, 346 F. Supp. 2d 853 (N.D. Tex. 2004), for example, a federal court held that “to the extent [that a] campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the University’s students, irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not.”

FIRE has successfully challenged free speech zones at universities across the nation, including at West Virginia University, Seminole Community College, Citrus College, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Nevada at Reno, Colorado State University, and Texas Tech University. In all of these cases, the institutions challenged have either decided to open up the public areas of their campuses to expressive activities or have been forced by a court to do so.

FIRE has been joined by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the Student Press Law Center, outraged alumni, concerned citizens, and journalists from across the country in calling for VSU to immediately end its unconstitutional free speech quarantine. (Indeed, the Thomas Jefferson Center went so far as to award you a 2008 “Jefferson Muzzle,” a distinction reserved for “the country’s most egregious and ridiculous censors.”) VSU’s continuing refusal to ensure freedom of expression on campus has elicited negative attention from such national media outlets as The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and InsideHigherEd.com, in addition to extensive local coverage.

Additionally, VSU is one of only five schools that FIRE has put on our “Red Alert List,” an ignominious distinction reserved for those institutions that have shown particularly severe and ongoing disregard for their contractual or constitutional commitments to uphold students’ fundamental rights. The “Red Alert” distinction serves to warn current and prospective students and parents that students are not free to speak their minds at VSU, meaning that students are in danger of being censored and sanctioned merely for expressing opinions outside of the “Free Expression Area.”

As your retirement draws near, we urge you to consider whether the legacy you leave behind at VSU will be one of openness and freedom or one of censorship and repression. In your remaining time as president of VSU, we urge you to rescind VSU’s unlawful and immoral Free Expression Area Guidelines. As we have said before, we hope to resolve this situation amicably, but we remain committed to using all of our resources to defend free speech at VSU.

We request a response on this matter by June 27, 2008.

Sincerely,

William Creeley
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

cc:

Chancellor Erroll B. Davis, Jr., Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia
Kurt J. Keppler, Vice President for Student Affairs, Valdosta State University
Louis Levy, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Valdosta State University
Laverne Lewis Gaskins, University Attorney, Valdosta State University
Dr. Patrick J. Schloss, President-Elect, Valdosta State University
Sara Lipka, Staff Reporter, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Andy Guess, Staff Reporter, InsideHigherEd.com
Kay Harris, Managing Editor, Valdosta Daily Times
Alicia Eakin, Valdosta Bureau Reporter, WALB News
Mike Marino, News Editor, The Florida Times-Union
Bill Stewart, News Editor, Athens Banner-Herald

 

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