The Colorado Springs Independent has an article in its latest issue on the free speech zones at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (UCCS) Last fall, a woman’s advocacy student group called AWARE wanted to reserve a space on campus for a bake sale satirizing the wage gap between male and female workers. The university told the group that since their demonstration was of a political nature, it would have to be held in the campus’ free speech zone. The College Republicans had previously held a Global Warming Beach Party to express opposition to popular theories regarding global warming in the same area outside the free speech zone where AWARE wanted to demonstrate.
To justify the free speech zone, UCCS Professor James Colvin points out that while universities may regulate the time, place, and manner of speech, those restrictions must be viewpoint neutral. But what Colvin leaves out is that in addition to viewpoint neutrality, the regulations must also be reasonable. While banning political speech entirely from a university campus or relegating it to one or two small areas may be viewpoint neutral, depending on how it’s enforced, it is not at all reasonable or constitutional.
Free speech zones are rarely reasonable and, as in the case above, almost never enforced with viewpoint neutrality. Furthermore, as FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris says in the article, “The College campus itself should be the ultimate free-speech zone. Therefore, any policies that restrict the exercise of free speech to small or out-of-the-way areas of campus are entirely inappropriate.”
The article briefly explains that the roots of free speech zones lay in the Vietnam era when universities were attempting to restrain student opposition to the war. In their book The Shadow University, FIRE founders Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate trace the philosophical justification for free speech zones to the thinking of Herbert Marcuse, particularly his idea of “repressive tolerance.” After receiving hundreds of calls for help, Kors and Silverglate founded FIRE to combat universities’ use of free speech zones and other repressive mechanisms to stifle freedom of expression.