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Speech Code of the Month: Colorado Mesa University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for April 2014: Colorado Mesa University.

Colorado Mesa’s policy on “Free Speech” (PDF) provides:

In an effort to support the rights of students and others, a Free Speech Zone has been designated within the perimeter of the University. The concrete patio adjacent to the west door of the University Center has been designated the Free Speech Zone. The location is a central pedestrian thoroughfare for daily campus life and easy access to classroom, residential, and activity centers on campus.

Wow, a whole concrete patio just for expressive activity? Thanks, Colorado Mesa! I’m sure that is more than enough space to accommodate the free-speech needs of the university’s approximately 9,500 students. That is almost as generous as the legendary “free speech gazebo” that used to exist at Texas Tech University before the institution was sued and a federal court ordered Texas Tech to open up a much greater portion of its campus to student expressive activity.

While Colorado Mesa’s policy refers to the university’s right to enact “time, place, and manner” restrictions, that right—as someone in the university administration really should know—is far from absolute. It certainly does not include the right to limit the expressive activities of nearly 10,000 students to one “concrete patio” on an 86-acre campus. While universities may establish “reasonable” time, place and manner restrictions (see Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989)), the case law makes abundantly clear that policies like this one, at least with regard to members of the university community, are not reasonable. Time and again, courts have determined that to be considered legal, “time, place and manner” restrictions must be reasonable and “narrowly tailored” to serve a significant governmental interest, leaving open ample alternative channels for communication. Limiting students’ expressive activities to one small free speech zone on campus does not nearly meet this standard.

Free speech zone policies have been struck down by federal courts, or voluntarily revised by universities in order to settle or avoid First Amendment lawsuits, at numerous colleges and universities around the country, including Modesto Junior College, the University of Cincinnati, and Texas Tech University. Like these other policies, Colorado Mesa’s policy violates the university’s moral and legal obligations, as a public university, to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights. The university should revise it immediately.

For these reasons, Colorado Mesa University is our April 2014 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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