Students at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) in Lawrenceville, Georgia, have reason for increased optimism regarding the protection of their free speech rights. That’s because their peers in the Student Government Association (SGA) recently passed a stirring resolution calling on the public institution to honor its moral and legal duties under the First Amendment by upholding freedom of speech on campus. The SGA resolution is not only a result of GGC students working with FIRE towards the improvement of their institution’s speech codes, it is a fine illustration of student government advocating for their fellow students’ essential rights.
FIRE was first contacted by GGC student Stephen "Michael" Christian in June of last year, when he inquired about GGC’s policies regulating student expression. Michael, a senator in the SGA, expressed interest in working with FIRE to get the school’s problematic speech codes revised. While GGC is not rated in FIRE’s Spotlight database, we were happy to review the college’s policies for Michael and for other interested students on campus. (Due to limitations in the time and staff resources FIRE is able to devote to reviewing and annually updating schools’ Spotlight entries, we simply cannot add every college and university to our Spotlight database, though we add to the list annually.) To aid them in their campus advocacy efforts, we produced a memorandum cataloguing and analyzing the college’s speech codes.
In pertinent part, our memorandum found that:
As a public college, Georgia Gwinnett College is legally bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Protecting students’ right to free speech is essential to the ability of GGC to fulfill its mission as a quintessential "marketplace of ideas." Yet in contravention of these principles, GGC currently maintains seven policies restricting students’ expressive rights in violation of the First Amendment.
As our memorandum covered in detail, these unconstitutional policies included a restrictive free speech zone policy, a ban on "verbal abuse," a policy mandating "dignity and respect," a housing policy on "Acts of Intolerance," and three problematic harassment policies.
Armed with our policy review and analysis, Michael and his allies on campus (including fellow student leaders Travis Jones, Tyler Vining, John Tranberg, Shannon Conner, and Quinton Malone) set out in the fall to advocate for their fellow students’ First Amendment rights. Among other measures, they introduced a resolution in the SGA titled "Free Speech on Campus." On February 4, the resolution passed with overwhelming support in both the Senate and Executive Council of the SGA. This is a great victory for students’ rights and free speech on campus, one that we are happy to celebrate along with the students who worked hard to make it happen.
The SGA resolution includes plenty of great language recognizing the primacy of freedom of speech on a university campus. It begins:
Whereas, the freedom of speech is imperative for a healthy collegiate culture;
Whereas, the freedom of speech transcends political philosophy, party, and ideology and constitutes a crucial part of the American identity as protected by the United States’ constitution;
Whereas, free speech areas have effectively limited where and when students can exercise their freedom of speech…
The SGA resolution goes on to discuss the First Amendment problems with each of GGC’s speech codes, in line with FIRE’s analysis. Indeed, the entire document is well worth a read for its exemplary defense of students’ free speech rights. The resolution concludes, in relevant part:
Therefore, Be It Resolved, the Student Government Association:
1. Believes that the GGC Student Handbook should be amended to explicitly recognize any outdoor campus area which students freely traverse and utilize (such as fields and sidewalks) as areas where students may engage in free speech during GGC’s hours of operation;
2. Believes that, in order to ensure that students can exercise speech spontaneously, reservation of certain areas on campus should be only used as a way for members of GGC’s community to ensure that the area will be available for them when they organize to exercise free speech at a certain time;
6. Believes that GGC should embrace free speech on campus, including speech which may either be unpopular or be in contrary to general consensus of what is true or right;
Again, we highly commend Michael and his peers in the SGA for their advocacy in favor of campus speech rights. And we recommend that readers check out the resolution for its detailed prescriptions for each of the college’s problematic policies. Hopefully, the GGC administration is paying attention to its student government’s efforts, and is willing to work with them toward improving the college’s policies on student speech.
This is the type of student government activity we like to see on college campuses, where elected student officials advocate on behalf of their peers in the student body and in defense of important, fundamental rights. The student advocacy on GGC’s campus sets a great example for students elsewhere, and we can only hope that members of student governments at other institutions are moved to do the same on their own campuses.