Lawsuits, debate intensify over university ‘free speech zones’

October 1, 2002

The battle over controversial “free speech zones” on public university campuses continues to gather momentum as the lawsuits against the widely used zones multiply across the nation.


Several universities from Florida to Texas have encountered legal trouble as student groups, joined by national rights advocation organizations, claim that limiting demonstration to specific zones infringes on First Amendment rights.


Free speech zones are carefully drawn out areas where students or groups can hold rallies. Depending on the campus, administration allows varying amounts of
demonstration outside these areas.


The main argument behind the policy is that noisy protest can disturb classes in session on campus.


Debate is centering on West Virginia University, where student groups have sought to repeal a policy that even prohibits passing out pamphlets and carrying signposts outside designated zones.


Matthew Poe, a fourth-year WVU political science student, was confronted by campus police after he had been distributing flyers outside a free speech zone in October 2001.


Ensuing challenges to the policy failed to have any effect, so Poe finally decided to seek legal action in June this year to have the rule overturned, with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


“I think America is a free speech zone, and the university has no business restricting it,” he said. “Rather, the university has a moral responsibility to endorse it.”


Poe suggested the reasoning behind the law was a thinly veiled excuse “to stop campuses from becoming confrontational, like UC Berkeley.”


He said the lawsuit, still under way, could set a precedent and help repeal similar policies at all public institutions nationwide.


UCLA is one of those public institutions with a free speech zone policy, although it is less far-reaching than those at other universities.


Groups wishing to make speeches using amplification devices must speak between 11:50 a.m. and 1 p.m. in Meyerhoff Park.


Pamphlet distribution, signposts displays and general protest can take place anywhere on campus.


Berky Nelson, director of the Center for Student Programming, said the restrictions do not infringe on students’ rights to voice their opinions.


“There is no restriction on free speech as people can voice their opinion anywhere on campus,” he said. “The only thing is they can’t make use of amplifying devices, like bull horns, as those could disrupt class.”


According to Rob Hennig, lecturer for the political science department, these restrictions are constitutional because they reasonably dictate time, place and manner as opposed to content of speech.


“The university has the right to impose reasonable restriction if (the free speech) impedes their mission,” he said. “A court would look at the reasons and rationale behind restrictions, and then determine whether they are fair.”


Still, Hennig suggested the restrictions could be loosened to allow demonstrations to occur after hours and on weekends.


Other universities have faced legal action for free speech zone policies, including the University of Houston, which refused to grant an anti-abortion campus group the right to display large graphic billboards of dead foetuses on the campus plaza in Nov. 2001.


UH administration said Butler Plaza, the center of campus, was not one of the four designated free speech zones on campus.


Sheree Tullos, chairman of Pro-Life Cougars, said administration denied use of the plaza even though university sponsored events always take place there.


“The university just didn’t like our displays and wanted to put us on a far corner of campus,” she said. “But you can’t take a part of a public campus and say you can’t speak there; it’s unconstitutional.”


In the lawsuit that followed, District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. granted a preliminary injunction that designated the campus plaza as a public forum.


The injunction also objected to prior restraint, the practice of disallowing some demonstrations before they took place if they were deemed too inappropriate.


Elsewhere, 30 Florida State University students were arrested in May after they refused to move their anti-sweatshop protest to a designated free speech zone.


In February, pressure from students and faculty forced the administration at the University of Wisconsin – White Water, to repeal a free speech zone policy in place on the campus.


Both the WVU and the UH lawsuits, still under way, have the potential to be landmark cases in this debate. This controversy is far from over.

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Schools: West Virginia University Cases: West Virginia University: Limit on Speech to Campus “Free Speech Zones”