The Mystery of the Missing Free Speech Zone

December 12, 2014

FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has already seen several victories for free expression on campus. Earlier this month, two institutions agreed to revise their speech codes and abolish their “free speech zones” within a day of each other—but far too many institutions still maintain such zones. A thoughtful editorial published in the University of South Dakota’s student-run newspaper The Volante on Wednesday criticizing the school’s limitations on speech led FIRE staff to take a closer look at USD’s free speech zones, and we made a bizarre discovery.

One of USD’s free speech zones doesn’t exist.

USD lists in its “Free Speech Policy” (PDF) the “Areas available for Free Speech”: Inman Field, North of Old Main, and “Other areas as approved.” Old Main is easy to find, but we couldn’t find Inman Field on USD’s campus map. So my trusty colleague David Deerson called USD’s main office and its director of parking services—neither had heard of Inman Field.

Searching the USD website for Inman Field yielded a university library document stating that sporting events used to be held in “Inman Field (no longer standing).” Another result displays an issue of USD’s alumni magazine, which features a historical look at USD, including references to football at Inman Field in the 1970s. How long exactly has Inman Field been gone?

Broadening the search to the rest of the Internet brought me to this gem: a blog post about South Dakota sports that cites the book A Celebration of One Hundred Years of South Dakota High School Activities and Athletics and says: “From 1907-12, state meets were held at Dakota Field (later site of Inman Field and today where business and law schools sit) at The University of South Dakota….” Let’s get this straight: At the very least, Inman Field has been out of commission long enough that buildings now sit on it.

Why—how—was it ever included in the three-item list of areas available for free speech on campus?

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only worrisome aspect of USD’s speech codes. The area north of Old Main constitutes only a small percentage of the campus, and as The Volante reported in its editorial, USD students are required to fill out a form several days in advance just to be able to use that space. Even more alarmingly, USD’s policy says regarding “free speech protests/demonstration”:

All Free Speech activities will be limited to Monday through Friday, during the hours of 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. No Free Speech activities will be allowed during the first week of each new semester, the week prior to finals, and the week of finals.

It is unacceptable for a public institution bound by the First Amendment to prohibit students from exercising their right to free speech in the open areas on campus outside of work hours (and I use the term generously—FIRE staff is here until at least 5:00) and for six full weeks of the academic year. The First Amendment doesn’t take vacations, nor does it have a bedtime. Further, it is mind-boggling that USD would disallow timely public speech relating to important current events if they happen to fall in the wrong 12 percent of the year.

USD must revise its policies to allow students to fully exercise their First Amendment rights. FIRE hopes USD students are inspired by The Volante’s editorial to demand this from administrators. As always, FIRE stands by ready to help USD draft policies that comply with its legal and moral obligations.

Schools:  University of South Dakota