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In Letter to Valdosta State, FIRE Demands End to Free Speech Zone

Hot on the heels of awarding Valdosta State University (VSU) the ignominious “honor” of a place on FIRE’s Red Alert list, FIRE wrote VSU President Ronald M. Zaccari last Friday to demand an end to the school’s unconstitutional free speech zone.

While VSU joined Tufts University and Johns Hopkins University on the Red Alert list due to the school’s expulsion of student T. Hayden Barnes for engaging in protected speech, the school’s free speech zone provides still further justification for its ignominy, as I discussed on The Torch a few weeks ago. In our letter, FIRE reminds soon-to-retire President Zaccari that VSU is legally required to uphold the First Amendment on campus—which means that VSU’s current practice of quarantining students’ free expression to just one stage on an 168-acre campus for just two hours a day doesn’t cut it.

As we write in our letter, the constitutional problems with VSU’s “Free Expression Area Guidelines” are threefold:

First, VSU’s requirement of advanced reservations for all “[p]ersons wishing to speak on campus” impermissibly burdens the exercise of free speech on campus. VSU’s reservation policy effectively requires that all free expression occurring on campus be explicitly registered and reserved at least two days prior. The operation of such a reservation system is patently incompatible with the First Amendment rights of VSU students and faculty. Expressive activity often involves spontaneous responses to unfolding events; to require prior reservations for all campus speech is to suppress free and open discourse on campus.

Second, VSU cannot lawfully quarantine free expression to just one area of the school’s 168-acre campus—specifically, a single stage located on the Palms Quadrangle on VSU’s Main Campus. (It would seem that VSU students hoping to engage in free expression on the school’s North Campus—which, at 83 acres, is roughly the same size as the Main Campus—are simply out of luck.) Even if this stage comprised a full acre, it would still account for less than 1% of VSU’s total campus. To impose such a stark restriction on the free expression of VSU’s more than 11,000 students demonstrates a brazen contempt for the indisputable importance of free expression to a modern liberal education.

Third, VSU cannot constitutionally limit free expression on campus to a mere two hours per day. Enforcing such an arbitrary and restrictive prohibition makes a mockery of VSU’s stated mission to “[e]xpand the boundaries of current knowledge, and explore the practical applications of that knowledge, through excellence in scholarship and creative endeavors.”

These regulations are unequivocally not the type of narrowly tailored “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions that can pass constitutional muster, as established by the Supreme Court in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989). There is nothing reasonable about transforming the vast majority of the university’s property—indeed, public property—into a censorship area, or about maintaining a system of onerous requirements by which students must abide in order to exercise their fundamental rights.

The bottom line is that between the expulsion of Hayden Barnes and the draconian speech zone, Valdosta State’s track record on free speech is appalling. We anxiously await VSU’s reply. Of course, we’ll keep you posted.

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