Zoning Speech

November 18, 2002

By Jesse Walker at Reason Online

On November 1, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the City of Tampa and its chief of police. Its clients are Janis Lentz, Mauricio Rosas, and Sonja Haught, three peaceful protestors who had been forcibly removed from Legend’s Field five months earlier. Their crime: holding signs with unwelcome messages (respectively: “Investigate Florida Votergate,” “June Is Gay Pride Month,” and “Boo!”) at a rally starring President Bush.

Legend’s Field is private (though tax-funded) property, and under other circumstances one might argue that its owners have a right to exclude whomever they please from the stadium. But as the St. Petersburg Times’ editorialists noted in June, the “private” rally “had a distinctly public character.” It was run in part by public employees and organized in part by White House staff; a White House spokesperson called it “a governmental, presidential event.” Other attendees could and did hold up placards, so the mere act of displaying a sign did not violate any preset ground rules. Lentz, Rosas, and Haught were singled out because the messages on their signs did not fit the rally’s script.

Did only three people in Tampa hope to protest the president’s visit? No. About 150 were sent to a specially designated First Amendment Zone created by local statute, about half a mile from the actual event. There they chanted, waved signs, and otherwise expressed their political views to any rally attendees who happened to be dreadfully lost.

Such free-speech zones, the real-space equivalent of a public-access channel in a sea of carefully controlled network programming, are most common on college campuses. Schools first experimented with the idea in the 1960s, but it didn’t catch on until more recently: In the last half-decade, more than 20 colleges have instituted such restrictions, in what Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls a “perversion of constitutional law” that suggests “speech is to be feared, regulated, and monitored at all times.” Under fire from civil libertarians, some schools have backed off such regulations: West Virginia University, for example, repealed its policy this month, following similar reversals at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Penn State. Other institutions, such as New Mexico State, have liberalized their rules without eliminating them altogether.

The battle on campus is only partly won, however, with the University of Houston and other colleges standing by their policies of segregating controversial speech. The University of Texas, which ran into a conflict earlier this year over the proper placement of an anti-abortion display, is thinking of renaming its “free speech zones” as “amplified sound areas.” Depending on whom you ask, this is either an Orwellian obfuscation or a welcome return to neutral regulation of the time, place, and manner of speech.

Meanwhile, as events in Tampa and elsewhere show, the notion of zoning speech has started to spread into the postmatriculation world as well. From Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Greensboro, North Carolina; from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Stockton, California, protesters at presidential appearances have been sent to small, distant speech zones, and threatened with arrest if they try to leave. Apparently, when George W. Bush comes to town, the right of free assembly gets suspended.

Hopefully, the lawsuit in Tampa will change that.

Download file "Zoning Speech"