In a July 12 report, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations expressed concerns about the proliferation of “free speech zones” on college campuses. The report was issued to explain the reasoning behind the Committee’s recently introduced appropriations bill to fund agencies like the Department of Education through the 2017 fiscal year. On page 144, the Committee Report states:
Free Speech Zones.—The Committee is concerned about the proliferation of colleges and universities that are limiting protests, speeches, distribution of literature, petitions, and other expressive activities to ‘‘free speech zones”. The Committee notes that the outdoor areas of campuses of public IHEs are traditional public forums. The Committee therefore believes that public IHEs may maintain and enforce reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions in service of a significant institutional interest only when such restrictions employ clear, published, content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria and provide for ample alternative means of expression. Any such restrictions must allow for members of the university community to spontaneously and contemporaneously distribute literature and assemble.
So-called free speech zones are a continuing problem at institutions of higher education nationwide. According to a 2013 FIRE study of campus policies, roughly one in six campuses had implemented such zones, and thereby limited where students could engage in expressive activities on their campuses. FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has repeatedly targeted institutions with egregious free speech zones. In its first two years, SUFS has already sponsored successful lawsuits to stop institutions from using such policies to prevent students from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution, criticizing the National Security Agency, and promoting the virtues of a vegan diet.
In addition to litigation, FIRE has been working to eliminate the use of free speech zones through legislation. So far, with FIRE’s help, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Missouri have both passed laws to prohibit the practice.
FIRE is thrilled that the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, shared our concerns and included the provision in the report. The report’s free speech zone passage was drafted and requested by Representative Bob Goodlatte, who has been a champion of free speech on campus.
The report’s free speech zone language represents an important step forward for advocates for free expression on college campuses. It signals lawmakers’ growing awareness of the threat posed by misleadingly-labeled “free speech zones.” FIRE will continue to work with members of Congress and state lawmakers from across the political spectrum until the era of campus free speech zones is brought to an end.