Free speech policy called into question

October 24, 2005

As an American citizen, one has a constitutional right to have and state opinions, but officials at college campuses around the country say there is a time and a place for it. This issue is not foreign to San Diego State.

Free speech zones began to appear on college campuses during the 1980s as a way for university administrators to allow students to voice their opinions and put on demonstrations without inhibiting the surrounding learning environment, according to a May 2003 Associated Press article ,”Schools under fire for ‘free speech zones.'”

But many believe the idea of “free-speech zones” on campus give the impression that universities will only reluctantly tolerate free speech, and impose tight regulations.

So far, no court has seen a case dealing with the constitutionality of “free speech zones” because college campuses avoid these types of lawsuits, according to the Coalition for Student and Academic Rights, a “non-profit network of lawyers who help college students and professors with their legal problems,” as stated on their Web site,

Director of the Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities at SDSU Marty Block highlights the main issue regarding free speech zones.

“Generally speaking … the main concern in our free speech question on campus is whether the speech interferes with the educational process,” he said. “When sound is amplified by a bullhorn or a microphone, it may very well be something that disrupts students in the classroom.”

Designated “free speech zones” are anything but specific to SDSU. In fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Alliance Defense Fund at Texas Tech University attempted to challenge its university’s free speech regulations last June. Because of the lawsuit, Texas Tech created more zones on campus, which are also larger.

Block said as long as the student is using the “normal level of talking” or is simply loud enough without being disruptive of the learning process on campus, “they have a right to do that virtually anywhere on campus that’s outside … as long as they’re not blocking exits or entrances to buildings.”

In addition to the incident that took place last week at SDSU, in which an event was interrupted, CSU San Marcos professor and the campus International Socialist Organization advisor Lance Newman had an issue with SDSU free speech policy.

Newman was on campus with students last week protesting the Iraq war near an army display by the library. University Police eventually arrived on the scene and told the protesters to move.

“The police told the protesters that they could only protest on the Free Speech Steps and threatened to arrest them if they did not move immediately,” Newman said. “This was very clearly an attempt to violate their constitutionally guaranteed right.

“Fortunately, the students stood up for themselves and refused to leave.”

Block said for demonstrations that students wish to put on involving amplification and/ or a larger crowd, they should take advantage of the campus Free Speech Steps.

“Part of the reason why we built the Free Speech Steps by the Aztec Center was because it’s far away from classes,” he said.

If police get a complaint from a classroom that the demonstration on the steps is too loud, and the group has a permit to use the amplifier, the police will check the volume, Block said. Unless the decibel level is higher than what the permit allows for – 65 decibels between the hours of noon and 1 p.m., in the case of the Free Speech Steps – the group may continue speaking.

However, Newman believes creating this “free speech zone” is unconstitutional.

“It is a violation of the Constitution for the university administration to restrict free speech to a small area on campus such as the so-called ‘Free Speech Steps’ at the Aztec Center,” he said. “It is also a violation of the Constitution for the university to require advance notice or permits for free speech activities.”

For some students, free speech zones serve an important purpose and don’t necessarily make them feel inhibited from voicing their beliefs.

“Freedom of speech should be allowed anytime and anywhere, but people just need to use good judgment when using it,” communication junior Kyle Kuhlmann said.

While groups on campus have contested that the Constitution’s First Amendment should supersede any university regulations regarding free speech, Block said he agrees but said there are stipulations.

“The Constitution does supersede university code,” Block said.

However, he said the Constitution doesn’t guarantee unlimited free speech and can be stopped when it interferes with the educational process or presents imminent danger.

Newman believes the zones confining free speech should be taken away completely.

“This issue will not go away until the university rescinds its ‘free speech zone” policy,” he said. “Several other universities around the country have done so in the last couple of years.

“SDSU should follow their lead.”

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Schools: San Diego State University Texas Tech University Cases: Texas Tech University: Speech Code Litigation