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Colleges Must Educate Students About Value of Free Speech

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in Daily Journal.

For those of you who are concerned about the state of free expression on campus, I would like to introduce you to Texas Tech University’s “Free Speech Gazebo.” The Gazebo is only 20 feet wide, and in early 2003, it was the sole area on campus where students could engage in free-speech activities – demonstrations, speeches or even handing out pamphlets – without clearing it with the university a minimum of six days in advance.

To illustrate the lunacy of this policy, I asked one of my friends, who has a math degree from MIT, how tightly you would have to pack the Free Speech Gazebo in order to fit all of Texas Tech’s 28,000 students. He deduced that, if (God forbid) all Texas Tech students wanted to exercise their free-speech rights at the same time, you would have to crush them down to the density of Uranium 238.

Unsatisfied with 280 square feet of freedom, Texas Tech student Trevor Smith contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Smith and his group, Students for Social Justice, wanted to hold a protest against the Bush administration’s policies toward Iraq. Texas Tech officials told Smith that the protest would be allowed only in the gazebo.

On Feb. 6, 2003, one day before the protest, the foundation wrote to Donald R. Haragan, president of Texas Tech, urging him to respect his students’ rights. The next day, the students held their planned protest outside of the gazebo without interference from the administration.

Yet, despite promises to greatly expand the area designated for speech, Texas Tech’s speech-zone policy remained, along with a clearly unconstitutional speech code. So on July 12, 2003, the foundation and the Alliance Defense Fund launched a legal challenge against Tech’s speech polices.

Earlier this fall, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas threw out much of Texas’s speech code as unconstitutional and ruled that the policy must be interpreted to 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.”

While banishing free speech to a gazebo may seem almost funny, this lack of respect for free expression at institutions that rely on openness and debate to function properly is no laughing matter. Speech codes that ban “offensive” speech, and speech zone policies that quarantine expression to tiny areas of campus, teach students that free speech is at best a joke and at worst a nuisance to be done away with by any means necessary.

And students have been learning these lessons well for years now. In the spring of 2002, a New York Times article headlined “Debate? Dissent? Don’t Go There!” explored the growing perception that modern college students are more guarded about their views than students of previous generations. The author reviewed a number of potential causes for this, including the unifying effect of Sept. 11, disgust with partisan politics, the uncivil debates students see on cable news programs and simple politeness. Curiously absent from this article, however, was any suggestion that they may be learning this attitude from the colleges themselves.

Today’s students are doubtless aware that speech which offends anyone can get them in serious trouble. Just this year, at universities including University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Occidental College, Rhode Island College, George Washington University, University of Georgia, and University of New Hampshire, students and faculty who engaged in what would be protected speech in the larger society were evicted from housing, suspended, sentenced to mandatory psychological counseling, threatened with expulsion, and found guilty of serious offenses ranging from “harassment” to “disorderly conduct.

The phenomenon of “free speech areas” perhaps best represents the attitude toward free speech at many colleges and universities today. Free expression will be tolerated but only grudgingly and only when it is agreeable, tightly controlled and regulated. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of schools mandate tiny, restrictive speech zones. In the past few years, we have received reports of unconstitutional speech zones at Clemson University, Western Illinois University, Florida State University, University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Oregon, Ithaca College, California State University at Chico, West Virginia University, and University of Northern Texas, just to name a handful.

With so many schools propagating rules that are hostile to freely following expression, where exactly are students supposed to learn to value freedom of speech? They will not learn it in their classes, as the Times article made clear, and they are not likely to learn it in their student activities, which are tightly regulated and controlled. They are even unlikely to learn respect for free speech from their fellow students.

If the continuing problem of students stealing – and often destroying – newspapers to repress opinions and articles they dislike is any indication (an all too common and well-documented form of grass-roots censorship that most recently reared its ugly head at Yale University), free speech faces an uncertain future. Under these circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised when college students think twice about opening their mouths.

For the sake of the liberty of future generations, we must educate the current generations about the value of free speech, not just about its perceived “downside.” People who believe in free speech and uninhibited debate on campus must stop feeling that they need to qualify or apologize for those essential beliefs. The messy, loud, chaotic and, yes, sometimes-offensive nature of a college campus is what makes the college experience compelling and unique. College administrators’ time would be far better spent preparing students for how to dive in and take full advantage of this chaotic paradise, rather than trying to corral all the most vocal students into tiny free-speech zones.

Besides, as my math whiz friend has warned me, if we have to pack students any more tightly together than at Texas Tech, we may end up with a black hole on our hands, and nobody wants that.

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