Northwest Florida State College Rejects Imposition of Free Speech Zones

By October 25, 2011

Making a decision that too few colleges and universities have made over the years, Northwest Florida State College (NWFSC) has decided to reject the imposition of free speech zones at the college. As reported by the Northwest Florida Daily News, NWFSC’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week not to go forward with a proposal from NWFSC President Ty Handy that would have designated free speech areas on five of the college’s campuses.

In so doing, the Board displayed some sound logic and a proper sense of what the right to free speech means:

"We felt like, around the table, that there are no free-speech issues, there’s no protest issues," said board Chairwoman Sandy Sims. "We will handle those issues as they arise and there’s no reason to have a cookie-cutter policy that dictates how those issues will be handled."

That’s right. As we say all the time, it makes no sense to quarantine student and faculty expression protected by the First Amendment to specific areas of campus, particularly to small or out-of-the-way areas, as colleges and universities often do (resulting in some memorable FIRE cases). Rather, the proper thing to do is to let free speech be free on the vast majority of campus, and especially in the open, public areas of campus. If only more schools understood this as well as NWFSC’s Board evidently does.

The Daily News also published an editorial today commending the Board’s decision, and included this nugget:

When the proposal was put forward, it included not only the free-speech zones but also a requirement that speakers file paperwork to reserve a free-speech zone at least two days in advance. The policy trashed, in spirit if not in letter, the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

Not only is that last sentence right on the money, this excerpt demonstrates another reason why it was critical for the Board to reject the proposal: Requiring students and other campus speakers to make reservations at least two days in advance to use one of the designated free speech zones would have restricted their right to engage in a wide swath of spontaneous expression, including campus protests, demonstrations, and rallies (and it seems those forms of expression are rather popular these days, both on and off campus). Spontaneous speech is vital to the free exchange of ideas, as often students will not know ahead of time (in this case, two days ahead of time) that they will be responding to immediate or still-unfolding events. Forcing students in such a situation to wait two days to hold their event ultimately threatens to rob their message of its relevance and effectiveness.

So kudos to Northwest Florida State College for declining to impose free speech zones on its campuses; its students and faculty are better off for the move. In lieu of saying anything more on this, I’ll let the Daily News editorial have the last word:

So the trustees were right to reject it. If they find themselves wrestling with a free-speech issue in the future, here’s our advice: Consult the Constitution.