Last week, the Daily Southtown (Ill.) published an editorial criticizing the trustees of Joliet Junior College for adopting a new free speech zone policy. Although the new policy seems to be improved because it moves these zones closer to where students actually gather, the editorial board rightly questions why the policy wasn’t completely abolished. The editorial correctly notes that “designating a ‘zone’ and setting up rules for how to use it doesn't encourage free speech, it limits and discourages it.”
Free speech zones are nothing more then a ruse used by college administrators to suppress the free exchange of ideas. Since federal courts have repeatedly held college speech codes unconstitutional, administrators have been forced to come up with craftier schemes in their never-ending quest to suppress unpopular or “offensive” dissent. One of the results has been an attempt to disguise censorship as content neutral time, place, and manner restrictions. Many universities are simply “zoning out” free speech by restricting it to areas that are either secluded or too small for any type of meaningful larger expressive gathering.
In a lawsuit coordinated by FIRE, a federal district court noted the following when finding a Texas Tech speech zone policy unconstitutional:
The University’s interest in an orderly administration of its campus and facilities in order to implement its educational mission does not trump the interest of its students, for whom the University is a community, in having adequate opportunities and venues available for free expression. Indeed, those who govern and administer the University, above all, should most clearly recognize the peculiar importance of the University as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ and should insist that their policies and regulations make adequate provision to that end.
As the Texas Tech case states, universities have the power to enact reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. However, administrators too often conveniently forget the word “reasonable” when constructing their policies. Other federal courts have struck down similar heavy-handed policies at the University of Houston, the University of Virginia, and the South Orange County Community College District in California, among others. FIRE has also used public pressure to challenge immoral and unconstitutional free speech zone policies at Clemson University, UNC Greensboro, West Virginia University, and the University of Central Florida.
Joliet Junior College should follow the advice of the Daily Southtown and outright abolish its free speech zone policy.