University keeps free speech boxed in

By October 11, 2004

For about 20 years, people who have wished to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech on campus have been confined to a small area off of the King Memorial Commons. Free speech – especially at a public university – should be unrestricted, as long as it doesn’t hinder the educational purpose for which the school was established.

About 30 protesters met in the Martin Luther King Commons Thursday in hopes of abolishing the free-speech zone that NIU designated.

In 1985, NIU and other universities across the nation chose a location on campus where students could meet and set up protests. The MLK Commons outside the Holmes Student Center was designated NIU’s first “free-speech zone.”

According to the rights defined in the First Amendment, students should not have to meet in a specified zone to protest political actions or to help bring about change at NIU, said Zach Lutz, a graduate student and member of the Labor Rights Alliance, which helped organize the protest.

According to protest organizers, about 1 percent of NIU’s population is able to fit into the small area outside HSC.

Recent pressure by speech activists has caused some higher education institutions to remove their speech-zone restrictions.

Until last month, 28,000 students at Texas Tech University were confined to a single 20-foot diameter gazebo where students could exercise their free speech.

Last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education intervened on behalf of students, prompting the university to add several acres of free-speech zones.

However, a federal district judge ruled last month that such limitations were unconstitutional, saying the university must allow free speech for students on “park areas, sidewalks, streets or other similar common areas … irrespective of whether the university has so designated them or not.”

The ruling came after FIRE and several other free-speech organizations filed a lawsuit against the university because of its limitations on free speech.

“According to the ‘free-speech zone’ action in our university, we are only allowed to meet in .014 percent of the total campus, when under the First Amendment we should not be designated a place to actively practice free speech,” Lutz said.

NIU should allow members of the NIU community to exercise their First Amendment rights without such space regulations.

Doing so not only is the constitutional thing to do, but in today’s society, it’s also the right thing to do.

Schools: Northern Illinois University