One thing’s for sure: The University of Cincinnati can’t say it never saw this week’s big courtroom win for student speech rights coming.
That’s because back in March, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, published a list of the 12 worst colleges for free speech in the nation here at The Huffington Post — and UC was right at the top of our list.
How did UC earn this dubious distinction?
Well, prior to this week, UC maintained an incredibly tiny free-speech zone, limiting student "demonstrations, pickets, and rallies" to a space covering a miniscule 0.1 percent of the school’s 137-acre campus. Here’s what that looks like on a map. (Hint: the free-speech zone is the green part. Kind of hard to find, huh?) Making matters even worse, UC required students to ask permission to use the zone 10 whole days beforehand, and threatened any student that failed to do so with criminal prosecution.
If a public university quarantining free speech to just one tiny corner of campus strikes you as more than a little nuts, you’re not alone. This week, a federal district court in Ohio agreed in full, finding that UC’s free speech zone "cannot stand" under the First Amendment. The court issued an order prohibiting UC from enforcing their free speech zone and demanded that UC revise its policy to comply with the First Amendment. If you like thorough judicial takedowns of laughably unconstitutional restrictions on student speech as much as I do, I highly recommend checking out the court’s decision. It’s a good one.
It’s important to recognize that UC is by no means the first public college to herd its students into a pathetically small free speech zone. In the last decade, FIRE has helped dismantle free speech zones at theUniversity of North Carolina at Greensboro , West Virginia University, the University of Nevada at Reno,Citrus College in California, Valdosta State University in Georgia, Tarrant County College in Texas, andTexas Tech University. Indeed, Texas Tech’s former free-speech zone might have been the most hilariously unconstitutional of the bunch. Before a lawsuit coordinated by FIRE forced changes, Texas Tech limited the free speech activities of its 28,000 to one 280-foot "free speech gazebo." You can see a picture of it here.
So this is a national problem. Sadly, despite this string of embarrassing defeats for free-speech zones in courts across the country (not to mention the court of public opinion!), too many colleges are far too comfortable designating a small area of campus for free speech, leaving the vast majority of school grounds a censorship zone.
Back to Cincinnati. UC’s now-defunct free-speech zone was brought before the court by a federal civil rights lawsuit filed back in February by a UC student group that became frustrated with being sidelined to the free-speech zone. The group was gathering petitions for a ballot initiative — but after a day’s work inside the free-speech zone’s tight confines, they were only able to interact with six fellow students.
The group had asked UC administrators to be allowed to gather signatures across campus, but that request was quickly denied. In fact, UC told the students that they were "not permitted to walk around," informing them that "if we are informed that you are, Public Safety will be contacted." That’s right — a public university threatened to call the cops on its own students, just for gathering signatures on campus.
Working with FIRE and Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law , the students secured lawyers and filed a federal lawsuit alleging that their First Amendment rights had been violated and challenging UC’s policy. This week, Judge Timothy S. Black found that UC’s free speech zone "violates the First Amendment and cannot stand," issuing a preliminary injunction preventing UC from enforcing it.
For free speech fans, there’s a lot to like in Judge Black’s opinion, as I explain in detail over here. I urge you to read it in full. The bottom line? Because a group of motivated students took a stand for their right to free expression, the outlook just got much better for the First Amendment on UC’s campus. Thanks to them, chances are that their college won’t be at the top of our "worst schools for free speech" list next year.