Brittany Keele is a literature major at the University of Houston. Like most people, Keele thought her First Amendment right to free speech applied everywhere in the United States. That was until she joined Students Against Sweatshops, a student organization fighting for better labor conditions. Keele discovered that free speech was not free on university property when a member of her organization clashed with university officials.
"He was sitting in Khator, who was our president–Renu Khator is our president and chancellor. He was sitting in her office because we’ve had–we’ve made so many attempts to meet with her. And we’ve never been able to meet with Khator. She’s always sort of delegated that responsibility to another administrator. And we’ve had so many problems with that, that’s a whole other topic. He was sitting in her office waiting to meet with her ’cause she’s always out of her office, always. And her assistant told him ‘No, she’s not in right now.’ And he said: ‘Okay, well I’ll just wait. I’ll read.’ And somehow they thought that was a threat. So they called the university police officers and escorted Brendan out and told Brendan if he came back he would be–he would be handcuffed. He’d be taken away."
Public colleges across the United States designate what they call free speech zones. These are low-traffic areas where students may engage in expressive activities such as protests. In Texas, it’s hard to find a college that doesn’t designate free speech zones. The University of Houston has designated nineteen, and within these zones, there are yet more restrictions on free speech. Six of the nineteen free speech zones must be reserved in advance. Most free speech zones can only be used from seven in the morning until seven at night. In some areas, stationary displays and amplified sound are not allowed.
Keele says with so many restrictions it’s hard to get her message across.She and other student activists have begun tabling.
"It’s what we call setting up a table at one of the designated areas on campus and we usually hand out pamphlets–or just any sort of information that’s good to distribute to people to inform them of our issue. We table often, but even then, it’s difficult to table because whenever you’re standing there at the table and you’re just shoving information at people. Most of the time they’re just–they’re on their way to their class and it’s–it’s not attention-grabbing," she said.
We called the University of Houston for comment, but they were unable to do so before our deadline. We did get Texas A&M University officials to comment. Texas A&M has a similar policy including three free speech zones.
"Even though we have those designated free speech areas, we work with our students if they do not want to use one of those areas and we look at where they do want to be able to have expressive activity and then we go through the forum analysis to see how we can help that student get their message across in the forum of their choice," said Cynthia Hernandez, special assistant to the dean of students at Texas A&M.
Free speech zones were originally intended to ensure free speech didn’t interfere with learning.
"The real rise of speech codes and free speech zones really came in the late 80s and the early 90s, for the most part," said Robert Shibley, vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). "You know, in a response to worriers, I think, that administrators had that protests and unfettered free expression would really cause problems on campus. I don’t think they really had a good reason to fear that. I think they shouldn’t have feared that. I think they should’ve opened their arms and accepted that. And I think that free speech zones were an attempt to make sure that protests didn’t take over the whole campus. The problem is–these free speech zones are so much smaller than the Constitution requires at a public university, in most cases, that what it’s really done is acted in a way to censor people who want to express themselves in a way that itsn’t compatible with that free speech zone. Some universities have it only during certain hours of the day. Other ones just a small, out-of-the-way part of campus. Behind a building or there was one university that had it next to a dumpster."
But wait a minute– Colleges restricting free speech? Don’t they have a long history of supporting academic freedom? The University of California in Berkeley was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement during the 1960s. Students engaged in protests and educational sit-ins.
"If we don’t do a better job of helping students to practice their First Amendment freedoms while they’re in school–both in high school and in college–then I think we face underming the future of freedom of speech in this country and in the First Amendment," said Charles Haynes with the First Amendment Center. "So I think that what’s at stake here is what kind of society we’re going to be in the future. And people aren’t born knowing how to be free citizens and how to use their rights responsibly. They learn that when they’re in school as part of their education, if they learn that at all. So if we care about the future of freedom and of free speech, then we need to give students meaningful opportunity to excercise their rights while they’re in school."
"I agree," said Brittany Keele. "I think that the university is not just supposed to be a place where you’re trained in whatever profession you choose to go into. It’s also a place where you’re growing. You’re growing into an adult and you’re learning how to be an adult. You’re learning who you are. In many senses, you’re growing into a complete person."
What happens when we don’t exercise our right to free speech?
"I think many Americans, unfortunately, take free speech so for granted that they no longer think too much about it and fail to see when it’s being eroded," Shibley said. "And as long as it’s speech that they don’t like that’s being censored, people don’t seem to raise their voice or complain. So I think we’re already seeing a kind of–I think people are tuning out about this issue and they don’t care because they think it’s speech that is offensive and shouldn’t be allowed in the first place. What they forget is when their speech–when they want to express their views and it’s censored, then they have already given to the government the power or to school officials the power to censor what they believe."
A 2007 by the First Amendment Center shows just how much people care about free speech. 66 percent of people polled said free speech was essential, down from 75 percent in 2002. Just 32 percent said free speech was important.
Earlier this year, Keele felt the impacts of public opinion first hand. Earlier this year two student groups held protests on campus that were widely reported in the local newspaper. Reader comments were mostly critical of the students.
‘You are there to better yourselves so that you can be the best you can be. You are there because you need an education. Once you have that and get into the real world, you’ll start to gain wisdom – perhaps enough to consider how to choose and then meaningfully contribute to serious issues.’
"On many fronts we feel like we’re not being supported," said Keele. "I mean, there are those that have supported us and I think–I think because we do feel like we’re being criticized so much, those who do support us it means so much. We really appreciate them and they’re really what keeps us going. And we also know that we’ve really studied these issues. We’re not just following something blindly. We really feel we know what’s going on out there and it disturbs us. So that too. Knowing that we’re doing the right thing, that really keeps us going, but we do feel like we’re being criticized on many fronts. And just like you said when we–when we read comments online from the Houston Chronicle or the Daily Cougar, which is our University of Houston newspaper, we have so many criticizing comments. We really do, but I think we have to write that off as people that are not educated on the issue."
When students aren’t given free speech on campus, some seek it in the legal system. In 2002, an anti-abortion group sued the University of Houston. Univerisity officials wouldn’t let them display pictures of dead fetuses outside the designated free speech zones. A district judge sided with students because at that time, UH’s policy was flawed. It allowed the dean to pick and choose which demonstrations could be held outside free speech zones. UH was forced to revise it’s policy to include written guidelines as to what demostrations could take place.
In 2003, two students sued the University of Texas-El Paso, claiming the university’s policy on free speech violated their First Amendment rights. The policy required students to get permits for speeches and then deliver them in free speech zones. One of the plaintiffs in the suit had submitted 24 requests for permits, all of which were denied.
That same year, a Texas lawmaker attempted to outlaw free speech zones at public universities. Representative Norma Chavez, (D) El Paso authored House Bill 2447. The bill essentially said colleges couldn’t regulate when and where students exercise their free speech. The bill was never passed into law.
But according to Shibley, not all forms of speech are guaranteed by the First Amendment.
"The text of the Constitution doesn’t say very much about that. What’s really important is the various Supreme Court decisions having to do with free speech. There are some legitimate restrictions. One of them is insitement, which means to actually advocating imminent lawless action against somebody or something. So it’s not as much as just making somebody angry as actually encouraging them to do something illegal. That’s one example of speech that can be prohibited. There’s forms of commercial speech that can be prohibited. You know, there’s the old chestnut about shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, which has to do with whether or not your speech is really a form of disruptive behavior. So there are exceptions, but let’s not forget the vast majority of speech that you and I engage in everyday is well-protected by the First Amendment."
But just because you don’t agree with something someone says doesn’t mean it should be prohibited.
"The land of the free has become the land of the easily offended," said Haynes. "And I think that we forget: If there’s not a First Amendment right not to be offended, that freedom of speech includes the right to say things that may make other people uncomfortable. But that’s what we’ve got to learn as citizens in one country with many different views, many different religions respective. We’ve got to learn how to debate one another, counter one another with civility and respect and yet with openess and freedom."
Afshar Kharat contributed to this report.