College students have a voice in campus free speech

By August 17, 2006

College students are encouraged to exercise their minds in the classroom, but the same might not be true for their voices on campus.

"They should know that [the right to] free speech is routinely violated on campus these days," said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit group that promotes individual rights at the nation’s colleges and universities.

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Campus policies restricting speech deemed offensive or discriminatory to certain groups have become the subject of a growing debate nationwide, as some students have found themselves banned from or disciplined for expressing or promoting unpopular opinions and ideas through student-run organizations and publications, or controversial guest speakers.

On the flip side, FIRE and other groups also are concerned about the growing number of university policies that promote a political view, administrative position or issue slant.

FIRE advocates on behalf of students’ free speech rights, and encourages students to learn about their rights before heading off to campus to know how best to handle situations in which they find their voices limited. On its Web site, the group provides guides to free speech, freedom of religion and other rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Among the big issues raised by FIRE and other advocacy groups is the designation of free speech zones on campus — specific areas where college administrators permit student protests, demonstrations or other events.

Free speech zones have become more common as a way for university administrators to manage demonstrations and public gatherings on campus. First surfacing as an idea in the late 1960s, when anti-Vietnam war protests intensified and disrupted many college campuses, free speech zones now are reserved areas on campus where students can schedule gatherings and events.

University administrators argue that college is an institution of learning and free speech policies help define guidelines that ensure classroom instruction can proceed without disruption.

"There is nothing more reassuring to higher education than students who are making a statement and taking a stand," said Sandy Rodriguez, a campus administrator who directs the Associated Students of the University of Nevada at Reno, which represents students’ interests. "The one time the university takes an exception to it is when it interferes with the learning process."

The University of Nevada at Reno’s use of free speech zones came under review when students and faculty members, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, cited First Amendment concerns with the four designated areas for public forums and demonstrations.

School administrators met with student government representatives to discuss revising the policy after a few weeks of growing student protests and demonstrations on campus, said Sarah Ragsdale, speaker of the Senate for Student Government at the University of Nevada at Reno.

"Students were showing such a clear interest that this was a priority to them to see some change," Ragsdale said.

Last month, the university revised its policy and expanded the free speech zones, first assigned in the late 1970s, to anywhere on the outside of campus buildings.

"My hope is that this is much more indicative of how much more active the University of Nevada is becoming in terms of its student activism," Rodriguez said. "The institution as a whole has benefited from it and become more of a learning community."

Ragsdale said she hopes the revised policy will allow students to feel more open to express themselves and display their power on campus.

"Colleges are the place where issues and ideas are to be debated," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada. "Universities need to be free. Faculty and students need to be free to make their views known.

"I think in recent years, there has been a general trend towards trying to stifle free speech, trying to gain more control. I think the overall trend is that there is an attempt to close off more robust, open, free-wheeling debate," he said.

The Supreme Court has also ruled against universities that try to set limits on where free speech can occur on campus.

In the 1981 Widmar v. Vincent case, a student group questioned whether a state university could close some of its facilities to it because it wanted to use the space for religious worship and discussion. The court decided that the University of Missouri at Kansas City had to provide equal access to student groups.

• Read the court decision here.

David Hudson, a research attorney with the First Amendment Center, a privately funded nonprofit organization that educates the public about First Amendment rights, said colleges can somewhat limit First Amendment rights with speech zones because they have authority over their property.

"There has to be some maintenance of order," Hudson said.

Hudson noted that public colleges and universities are quasi-governmental bodies and, therefore, are subject to the Bill of Rights. However, the same rules don’t apply for private colleges because they are not governmental bodies.

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Free Speech in Other Venues

Students shouldn’t be afraid to exercise their rights because free speech offers a valuable learning tool, said Megan Fitzgerald, director of The Center for Campus Free Speech, a Chicago-based advocacy group that aims to protect and promote free speech on campus. Among the events to be experienced on campus are lectures offering outside ideas and culture, political activities and guests who can teach perspectives not typically part of students’ campus experience.

"Outside of the classroom opportunities that are usually involved in free speech are huge educational opportunities," Fitzgerald said.

Controversy hits the nation’s campuses daily, from former presidents like Bill Clinton to spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama. Their presence on campus aims to spark intellectual debate, but sometimes draws criticism.

Not long ago, Duke University students invited Laura Whitehorn, who spent 14 years in prison for her involvement in plotting a 1983 bomb attack on the U.S. Capitol building, to speak on campus. The invitation caused an uproar among some students who called her a terrorist, but the university administration allowed Whitehorn to speak, citing its commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

John Watson, an associate professor of journalism at American University, said freedom of speech is a benefit that can expose students to many ideas, but the dark side of the right is that they will frequently be exposed to ideas and people they find objectionable.

"People generally restrict speech because there are some things they don’t want to know or don’t want to hear about," Watson said. "You have to be willing to listen to things that are wrong and horrible."

But students also need to be aware that not all of their actions are acceptable, Fitzgerald said.

"The big thing that students need to pay attention to is what the restrictions are on campus," Fitzgerald said.

Some campuses offer information during freshman orientation to advise students how to deal with uncomfortable situations and free speech. These materials can include advice on how to react to opposing viewpoints or perceived harassment.

Students may also want to inform themselves before heading off to school about attempts to censor student publications or advisers. A district judge in New Jersey issued an injunction last month to prevent the faculty adviser at Ocean County College’s Viking News (pdf), from being stripped of her post after the college board of trustees voted against renewing her contract as the newspaper’s adviser.

Karen Bosley and others claimed she was booted from the job because she allowed stories to be printed that were critical of the school’s president and administration. The trustees denied that charge, claiming she wasn’t adequately preparing students. U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler said Bosley’s being dumped would have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

"It allows potentially for the administration to restrict what campus publications can publish," Fitzgerald said of efforts to shut down criticism. "It’s definitely a bad thing, especially for students."

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