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Virginia Bill Would Eliminate Unconstitutional 'Free Speech Zones'

As Torch readers know, too many public colleges and universities are confused about what it means to regulate the “time, place, and manner” of student and faculty speech on campus, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has explicitly set forth the requirements for such regulations. Recognizing the critical importance of free speech on college campuses, last week Virginia Delegate Scott Lingamfelter introduced a bill to be considered by the Virginia House of Delegates that would explicitly prohibit Virginia’s public universities from misusing the “time, place, and manner” rubric to confine expressive activity to small or remote areas of campus.

HB 258 reads:

Public institutions of higher education shall not impose restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech that (i) occurs in the outdoor areas of the institution's campus and (ii) is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution unless the restrictions (a) are reasonable, (b) are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, (c) are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and (d) leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.

The language of provisions (b)–(d) tracks the Supreme Court’s decision defining “reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions” in Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 US 288, 293 (1984). Lingamfelter’s decision to match the Supreme Court verbatim demonstrates his commitment to protecting student and faculty expression to the full extent of the law—a commitment that all administrators and legislators should share.

This strong reminder of the limitations of time, place, and manner restrictions is much-needed in light of recent controversies like the one at Modesto Junior College, where administrators asserted that they could prevent student Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution on campus because he had not given prior notice and was outside of the school’s “free speech zone.” Further, as blogger John T. Hill noted on Bearing Drift today, 11 of Virginia’s public colleges and universities receive a “red light” or “yellow light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database, meaning that they maintain speech codes that restrict protected speech or can be easily abused to punish protected speech. Some of these policies would be directly impacted by HB 258.

Virginia—with three “green light” institutions and a law protecting religious pluralism on campus—boasts a better record on students’ First Amendment rights than many other states. If passed, this bill would allow the commonwealth to continue setting a positive example for the rest of the country.

Image: Virginia state capitol - Wikimedia Commons 

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