Free speech alive, well at county colleges

By January 22, 2007

Free speech is alive and well on college campuses.

Well, at most campuses anyway, depending on who you ask.

The issue of universities trying to move speech away from certain areas of the campus is not entirely new.

Many colleges and universities have resorted to limiting student protests and demonstrations to certain select areas of the campus—called free-speech zones, which are described as content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on all expression.

The last several years have seen a rise in such speech zones at universities, and college administrators believe free-speech zones are a way to prevent student activism from disturbing the learning process.

Several universities, including some in Illinois, have adopted these policies, and also have had the policies revoked in court or by pressure from First Amendment groups.

In 2003, Western Illinois University in Macomb abolished its policy regulations of campus demonstrations after 30 students and several professors waged a silent protest against their free speech zone.

Although the silent demonstration violated the school’s policy which was established in 1995, university officials did not hand out punishment to the individuals.

Regulations that restrict speech based on content are deemed unconstitutional and are subject to a high degree of judicial scrutiny, said David Hudson, a lawyer with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn.

However, the College of Lake County, with a student body of 16,000, does not have restricted speech and says it promotes expression.

“Why would we not do so?” said Felicia Gather, director of student life at CLC. “I don’t know how it is at other colleges, but here we have had no problems with expression. I don’t know why there would be a problem.”

Experts believe that universities adopted the zones to instill greater civility on public campuses and prevent harassment based on race and sex that was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, many schools have restricted students from distributing newspapers and other paraphernalia near libraries and student centers.

In recent years, students have often sought the help of groups like Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), putting legal and public pressure on colleges to abandon their restrictions.

Under pressure from FIRE, Chicago’s DePaul University recently lifted a ban on propaganda that it used last fall to silence student protest of a campus appearance by controversial University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill in 2005.

Tamara Pirro, president of Chi Alpha, a religious organization at CLC, said students will get their messages out no matter how many restrictions administrators put on free speech.

“If students want to say something, then who is to really stop them?” she said. “I don’t think it matters where a student speaks on campus. It is silly when you think about it.”

The 21-year-old said when her group distributes fliers and promotes events. Neither students on campus, nor administrators have any problems with what they are selling.

“Students on campus will make judgments about what information they want to consume,” Pirro said. “I don’t think anyone we have run into has found what we are trying to do as a distraction to daily college life.”

“The sky will not fall if universities allow college students to speak their minds,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “College is supposed to be the place where ideas should be exchanged freely without restrictions from their university, There should be no way that students should be restricted to only speaking in a certain area on campus.”

Lukianoff finds more instances of speech restriction occurring more at public universities where free speech is protected, than at private schools where free expression is not protected.

Lake Forest College, a private college with 1,400 students, also does not have restrictions against speech campus even though controversial figures have spoken on campus, said spokesperson Elizabeth Libby.

Most recently, the college invited Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, to speak on campus with little or no student protests.

“We hope that we will never have to come to the point to restrict speech on our campus,” Libby said. “We are here to promote free exchange of ideas, not restrict them.”

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