Free Speech Zone Policy Debated at University of West Florida

By March 4, 2011

On Valentine’s Day at the University of West Florida (UWF), people strolling the public university’s Cannon Greens did not see the language of love displayed, but instead the graphic images of genocide victims and aborted fetuses provided by a California anti-abortion group. According to an article by Terry Strickland in UWF’s student newspaper The Voyager, the display was held outside of UWF’s "free speech zone" (between buildings 18 and 21 on the campus map), and not without complaint. Many students claimed that the display was "a violation of decency" and questioned why it had not been confined to UWF’s free speech zone.

According to UWF regulations on freedom of speech and assembly, unscheduled assembly and public expression is confined to a free speech zone:

The assembly area designated on the campus map is established as the only campus location for unscheduled and unorganized public expression.

Furthermore, according to the article:

… the area between Buildings 18 and 21 – perhaps half an acre – is designated as the only area on a 1,500-acre campus where unscheduled and unorganized public expression is permitted. According to this same policy, in order to use any other area, those not affiliated with the university and even all UWF groups must register with the Commons and Student Services.

Unlike several other schools, however, non-UWF-affiliated individuals have the right to protest on all campus property without prior registration.

While this policy is less restrictive than other institutions’ speech zone policies, it places an unfair, unconstitutional burden upon student speech. FIRE’s Samantha Harris explains in an analysis of UWF’s free speech regulations why the speech zone is still cause for concern:

This is a free speech zone policy that limits *unscheduled* expression to one free speech zone, but allows scheduled expressive activities all across campus. Policies like this are less troublesome than the ones that limit all expression, scheduled or not, to one or more free speech zones. However, if unscheduled expression is indeed limited to the free speech zone described in the policy ("the assembly area designated on the campus between Buildings 18 and 21"; see a campus map here), then the policy is much too restrictive.

FIRE has seen far too many instances of free speech zones being used to stifle unpopular speech to take this one lightly. For example, in my end-of-the-year blog post about free speech zones, I showed how Tarrant County College (TCC) prohibited students from wearing empty holsters on campus to protest policies that forbade those with concealed carry licenses from being able to carry concealed handguns on campus. TCC told students that they were only allowed to protest the policy inside the college’s 113-square-foot free speech zone! Essentially, by confining the protesters to a tiny free speech zone, TCC prevented them from effectively conveying their message.

FIRE commends UWF for allowing the anti-abortion demonstration to occur outside its free speech zone. Kelly Russ, interim University of West Florida director of communications, correctly said that "the university had a responsibility to tolerate different viewpoints." However, UWF still has some distance to go before its policies are free-speech friendly. Samantha takes note of this when she points out the loophole in the speech regulations for individuals versus groups:

My best guess is that this means that student groups and the like need to use the FSZ for unscheduled expressive activity, but that individual speakers do not. But what about, for example, a small group of people united around a common cause who are not part of an official student organization?

Just because this demonstration wasn’t relegated to the free speech zone doesn’t mean that UWF won’t one day invoke its policies in an attempt to limit an organization or outside speaker’s controversial speech. It is FIRE’s hope that UWF will take the actions necessary to mend its restrictive free speech regulations so that its campus can finally be host to a truly free marketplace of ideas.

Schools: University of West Florida