Sierra Club Fails Valdosta State for Free Speech Zone

September 3, 2008

The Sierra Club has released its second annual list of "cool schools" that promote environmental initiatives on their campuses. As a counterpoint, the Sierra Club also includes a list of schools that conspicuously fail to encourage—or even inhibit—environmental initiatives. And, interestingly enough, who should we find on that latter list but one of FIRE’s Red Alert schools, the infamous Valdosta State University?

As regular Torch readers will no doubt recall, Valdosta State first came to FIRE’s attention when former VSU President Ronald Zaccari expelled student Hayden Barnes for posting a collage on protesting Zaccari’s plans to build a parking garage. Only after eight months of relentless pressure from FIRE and Hayden’s attorney did the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia reinstate Hayden. A lawsuit against Ronald Zaccari is currently pending in federal court.

During this ordeal, FIRE discovered Valdosta State’s incredible "free expression area" policy, which restricts freedom of expression to a twelve-foot stage on VSU’s 168 acre campus. While universities can implement time, place and manner restrictions for freedom of expression, the restrictions are required to be reasonable—and there’s nothing reasonable about Valdosta State’s free speech zone. To allot only 144 square feet for free expression on an approximately 7,318,080 square foot campus is ridiculous in itself, but Valdosta also requires that students get permission from the university 48 hours in advance and that they only use the free speech zone for only two hours a day, 12:00 – 1:00 PM and 5:00 – 6:00 PM.

VSU’s blatant disregard for the First Amendment rights of not only Hayden Barnes, but its entire student body is documented in the short film FIRE in Action: Valdosta State University. It’s not hard to see why Valdosta State’s free speech zone policy was named FIRE’s March 2008 Speech Code of the Month. In fact, VSU’s free speech zone earned the university a place on FIRE’s Red Alert list as one of five schools that we consider the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to student rights.

So what got VSU a place on the Sierra Club’s black list? Actually, it was the same thing that got Valdosta State on FIRE’s Red Alert list. The Sierra Club writes:

Want to protest your school’s less-than-green projects? If you attend VSU, schedule an appointment with the administration first. Campus protests can occur only with administrative approval in a "free-expression area" during two nonconsecutive hours each day.

VSU’s ridiculous free speech zone has gotten the condemnation it deserves not only from free speech advocates like FIRE, but also from those who simply want students to be able to speak freely on the issues of the day.

All Valdosta State has to do to get off FIRE’s Red Alert list is to abolish its free speech zone. Doing so will also probably keep VSU off next year’s Sierra Club list of uncool schools. Come on, VSU; it’s not often that doing the right thing will get so many of your critics off your back.

Schools:  Valdosta State University

Cases:  Valdosta State University: Freedom of Expression on Campus Limited to Unconstitutional Free Speech Zone