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The Trouble with Free Speech Zones

The Daytona Beach News-Journal article that Charles discusses below highlights the controversy over many public universities’ “free speech zone” policies—policies that limit free speech to specific, and often tiny, areas of campus. FIRE President David French is quoted as saying that free speech zone policies are “very common”—“[i]t’s gotten to the point where if I’m looking at a policy and I don’t see free-speech zones, I’m shocked.”

Universities often try to justify restrictive free speech zones by arguing that they are “reasonable time, place, and manner” regulations that are permissible under First Amendment law. However, free speech zone policies like the one that Seminole Community College is now reconsidering after FIRE’s involvement, which limit free speech to a small and remote area of campus, are likely unconstitutional. To constitute a valid time, place, and manner regulation, a regulation must be “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech,” must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” and must “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.” Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984). Most university free speech zone policies are none of the above. As FIRE stated in a 2002 letter to West Virginia University regarding its “free speech zone” policy, “[w]e assure you that there is nothing ‘reasonable’ about transforming ninety-nine percent of your University’s property—indeed, public property—into ‘Censorship Zones.’”

Students have successfully fought back against these restrictive free speech zones: after students from Texas Tech University (TTU) contacted FIRE regarding the University’s free speech zone policy, FIRE wrote to TTU, which quickly expanded its “free speech zone” from one 20-foot diameter gazebo on campus to include acres of additional free speech zones. (Other aspects of TTU’s speech code were later struck down in a lawsuit against the school).

FIRE believes that universities themselves are the ultimate “free speech zones,” and will continue to fight these restrictive policies in order to protect students’ precious right to free expression.

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