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Adding Insult to Injury: Valdosta State’s Shameful Free Speech Zone

As we noted last week, soon-to-be-retired Valdosta State University (VSU) President Ronald M. Zaccari will leave behind an appalling legacy with respect to liberty on campus. That’s mainly because Zaccari’s expulsion of student T. Hayden Barnes for peacefully protesting Zaccari’s plan to build $30 million parking garages on campus easily ranks as one of the most egregious constitutional violations FIRE has ever seen.

But unfortunately for current VSU students, when it comes to protecting constitutional rights, Zaccari’s negligence isn’t confined solely to the Barnes expulsion. Under President Zaccari, VSU maintains a blatantly unconstitutional “free speech zone”—a perhaps unsurprising discovery, considering Zaccari’s demonstrated contempt for upholding his constitutional obligations as president of a public university.

According to the current VSU Student Handbook, any of VSU’s 11,279 students wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights are confined to doing so within the school’s designated “Free Expression Area.” So out of VSU’s 168 acres worth of campus space, how much acreage has the school deemed fit for free speech? 125 acres? 100? 50?

Sadly, no. Incredibly, VSU policy designates just one location on campus as appropriate for free speech purposes—specifically, one single stage located on the Palms Quadrangle on VSU’s Main Campus. (Apparently, VSU students hoping to speak freely on the school’s North Campus—which, at 83 acres, is roughly the same size as the Main Campus—are just plain out of luck.) So unless this is a stage of truly epic proportions, that means that VSU has allocated less than 1 acre out of the campus’ 168 for free expression purposes. This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so brazenly contemptuous of the importance of free expression in a modern liberal education.

Amazingly, VSU’s “Free Expression Area” gets even worse upon further examination. Not only has VSU restricted free speech on campus to a single stage (a stage that, even if it was an acre large, would account for less than 1% of the school’s total campus size), but it has also dramatically limited the stage’s availability for free speech purposes. How? Well, most appallingly, the stage is only available for student use from 12:00 - 1:00 PM and 5:00 - 6:00 PM. Yes, you read that correctly: for just two hours out of every day, at just one single location, students can engage in free speech on VSU’s campus. Worse still, students wishing to do so must first reserve the stage 48 hours in advance. As the policy states:

To avoid conflicts in scheduling, reservations for the Free Expression Area (FEA) should first be made through the Dean of Students Office, who will then contact the Events Services Office to determine if the Free Expression Area (FEA) is available. 48 hours advanced notice is required, and this notice will not be waived.

Of course, requiring 48 hours notice from any student wanting to exercise his or her First Amendment rights is completely ridiculous. So much for spontaneous student speech. And needless to say, it’s entirely reasonable to be concerned about the impartiality of the Dean of Students when it comes to granting approval to, for instance, a protest critical of VSU.

And even if the student dutifully complies with VSU’s unconstitutionally onerous policies, he or she may still be censored if the “purpose” of the proposed speech doesn’t pass muster in the eyes of the Dean of Students or the Event Services Office, because VSU policy further mandates that “[c]ommunity use of University facilities must have an educational or cultural purpose.” This exceedingly vague provision provides more than enough interpretive wiggle room for VSU administrators seeking to preemptively quash student protest with which they disagree.

Finally, just in case VSU’s elaborate confinement of free speech still somehow let potentially disagreeable speakers slip by and get on stage, the reservation form prospective speakers must fill out warns that:

In order to maintain order and decorum on campus, and if in the professional judgment of the appropriate university officials, (e.g. the Office of the President, the Vice President for Student Affairs Office, the Dean of Students Office, and/or the Public Safety Department,) a speaker(s) is deemed to be creating a clear and present danger of material interference with the normal operation of the institution, then the speaker(s) will be asked to cease until further notice.

Again, vague terms like “order and decorum” allow VSU administrators plenty of discretion to silence unwanted speech on campus, First Amendment be damned.

It’s also chilling to see VSU again invoke the term “clear and present danger”—precisely as Zaccari did in justifying his “administrative withdrawal” of T. Hayden Barnes. It seems like some ambitious VSU administrator has been reading too much Tom Clancy—because when it comes to legal meaning, the term is essentially obsolete, as we explained in our letter to the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

Considered in sum, then, VSU’s “Free Expression Area” is a brazen affront to the First Amendment. By maintaining such a repressive system on his watch, President Zaccari has further confirmed that his legacy will be stained by a blatant disregard for liberty. VSU students should be outraged—and worried. After all, what happened to Hayden Barnes could easily happen to any VSU student loudly expressing opinions which Zaccari or other VSU administrators find uncomfortable or disagreeable.

Interestingly, the first student to alert FIRE to Valdosta State’s free speech zone was none other than Hayden Barnes, who wrote us in March of this year to inquire about the legality (or lack thereof) of VSU’s “Free Expression Area”—just two months before he was “administratively withdrawn” by President Zaccari.

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