Transcript, “Don’t Cage My Speech! A Student Schools His College”

By August 27, 2013

Don’t Cage My Speech! A Student Schools His College

CHRIS
Me suing the University felt a lot like David versus Goliath, like, I stood no chance at all because, you know, I am just a little student.

TITLE SEQUENCE

CHRIS
A lot of our events were simple events like recruiting on campus and trying to get new members into our group.

NARRATION

Chris Morbitzer founded the Young Americans For Liberty chapter a the University of Cincinnati.

CHRIS
You had to request permission at least two weeks in advance for any outdoor area and often times we wanted to recruit based on current events that were happening. // you know, we only had at most may be a couple of days before the current event was not current any more and people would not be interested by it.

NARRATION
They kept running into roadblocks, said YAL senior advisor Roshal Wanigasooriya.

ROSHAL
We were handing out fliers on main street, everything was going fine// until finally a campus bureaucrat just came up to us and she plainly said you can’t hand out fliers here, and if you continue to do this, well you, your group will be blacklisted and you will be kicked off campus.

NARRATION
And when YAL members wanted to circulate a petition for  a right to work initiative, administrators told them they had to stay within the free speech zone, something the students had never heard of.

ROSHAL
The free speech zone is, is a small triangle on campus. There really is no regular foot traffic.

CHRIS
When measured the size of free speech zone it came out that it was only 0.1% of the entire land area of the main campus here.

CHRIS
While we were standing in the free speech zone and unable to really approach that many people just a probably a few hundred yards away, we could see crowds and crowds of people walking to and from class that we were not allowed to approach.

NARRATION
If YAL members left the free speech zone, administrators said they’d call the cops and the students could be charged with trespassing, an offense that carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail.

CHRIS
I think it is absurd that they were threatening to put me in jail for exercising what is a constitutional right.

NARRATION
With their frustration mounting, they turned to FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for help. Greg Lukianoff is the president of FIRE.

GREG
FIRE had been writing the University of CIncinnati for years explaining that this ludicrous free speech zone policy would be laughed out of court, that it was laughably unconstitutional.

NARRATION
A university attorney responded to FIRE, writing that the free speech zone was indeed constitutional, and that it was needed to ensure that learning would not be disrupted.

CHRIS
I think that is absolutely ridiculous that, that as a student on campus I can’t go around to get signatures for a petition that honestly does not bother any classes or disrupt any learning on campus at all.  In fact I think it promotes learning.

NARRATION
They decided there was only one way to force administrators to pay attention to their free speech violations. Chris Morbitzer would sue his own university in federal court.

CHRIS
Me suing the University felt a lot like David versus Goliath, like, I stood no chance at all.

ROSHAL
We were hoping pretty sure that Chris was nervous // we were all kind of nervous.

CHRIS
Because, you know, I am just a little student and here is this behemoth institution that I am going up against.

NARRATION
It’s rare that a student would take on a major university.

GREG
These are wealthy, huge corporations with lots of power over your future.

NARRATION
FIRE teamed up with Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law who represented Morbizter for free. The team would have to wait for the lawsuit to make its way through the court system. In the meantime they tried the case in the court of public opinion. And it took off.

CHRIS
It spread like wildfire and my friends will be coming up to me and telling me about the latest article // and I had, I didn’t even know this article existed yet.

NARRATION
Spreading the word beyond campus was also important because free speech zones aren’t confined to campuses.

PROTESTER
These gentlemen have violated our constitutionally protected rights to free speech without cause.

NARRATION
Officers handcuffed this couple who was passing out “end the federal reserve” fliers at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the same site where America’s founders adopted the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

COP
I advise you to take a step back.

NARRATION
Where today this monument honoring the First Amendment looks more like a gravestone for free speech.

WOMAN
What are you teaching the kids? I don’t understand this?

NARRATION
You can find free speech zones at the last inaugural parade, in some cities, and at political protests.

SOT
This block needs to be cleared for security reasons.

NARRATION
Americans flock to monuments of liberty, but then look on passively when free speech is threatened.

GREG
Too many people these days are only concerned about free speech // when they’re getting censored, when their side is being told to go to the free speech zone.

PROTESTER 2

Let them go! Let them go! Let them go!

NARRATION

Hardly anyone joins in this man’s attempt to shame the officers.

PROTESTER 2
Let them go! Let them go!

GREG
And I think that one thing that really should unite Americans is the understanding that no matter what you believe, you defend the freedom of speech as a principle, not just as a political tactic.

NARRATION
During the 60s, free speech zones were used to promote speech. But somehow administrators eventually used them to restrict speech. In 1989, students at Tufts sold t-shirts listing reasons why beer is better than women. Administrators responded by implementing one of the first modern free speech zones. However, they ultimately backed down after they were embarrassed by bad publicity.

GREG SOT:
Welcome to Valdosta State University’s free speech zone.

NARRATION
FIRE helped defeat free speech zones at Valdosta State and other colleges like Texas Tech, which used to be home to a 20-foot-wide free speech gazebo.

GREG
I had a friend who had a degree in Mathematics from M.I.T. do the dimensional analysis on this and he worked out that if god forbid all 28,000 students wanted to engage in free speech activities at once, they would have to crush themselves down to the density of Uranium 238.

NARRATION
Yet free speech zones still exist at schools like these and many others.

NARRATION
Back in Ohio, Morbitzer’s lawsuit, like the original David vs. Goliath, came to an unexpectedly abrupt conclusion.

CHRIS
When my lawyer called me and told me that we had won the case, I just, I remember jumping up and down with excitement

ROSHAL
I was ecstatic. Like I couldn’t believe that I was, I was so happy.

NARRATION
US District Court Judge Timothy Black ruled that the free speech zone and other restrictions violated students’ free speech rights. “There is no danger to public order arising out of students walking around campus with clipboards seeking signatures,” he declared.

CHRIS
The news that we had won the case spread like wildfire all over Facebook all over Twitter, students were very excited.

GREG
The University of Cincinnati decided to dig in its heels to defend this free speech zone and for the life of me, I have no idea why.

NARRATION
We wanted to find out but the university ignored our interview requests.

ROSHAL
They’re a big public university that lost a lawsuit to a student // so I’m not surprised that they didn’t want to talk on camera.

GREG
It’s the students teaching the administration, teaching higher education itself, a lesson about free speech.

CHRIS
It just seems very strange backwards almost.

GREG
It’s backwards, but at least someone is doing some teaching about rights on campus.

NARRATION
These days YAL members are free to pass out fliers all over campus. And events are much easier to arrange compared to before the lawsuit.

ROSHAL
We organized a peace rally. It was much easier to reserve the outdoor space. It was much smoother and much faster.

CHRIS
It’s amazing to look back and see where we started and what happened just because of a small little petition that we wanted to circulate on campus.  Now the whole campus is open to free speech.