Three years ago this month, back when FIRE was in its toddlerhood, we won our very first victory in the battle against so-called Free Speech Zones. These “speech zone” policies restrict free speech and expression to tiny corners of campus and have been identified (and often defeated, thankfully) at dozens of campuses across the country. West Virginia University has the dubious distinction of being our first “speech zone” case. The university’s policy stated: “Due to the limitations of space on the downtown campus, the two designated areas for free speech and assembly will be the amphitheater area of the Mountainlair plaza and the concrete stage area in front of the Mountainlair and adjacent to the WVU Bookstore.” [Emphasis ours.] The area of these two spaces added up to about the space of a classroom.
FIRE had to point out to WVU that “free speech” under the First Amendment includes what you wear, read, say, emote, or silently resist, in addition to countless other everyday expressive acts, and that this policy was, therefore, stunningly overbroad. After receiving FIRE’s letter, the university backed down quickly, but soon issued a policy that was only somewhat less problematic. FIRE fought on for the better part of the year until WVU finally relented.
One of my favorite quotes from the seminal case of Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), is “Freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right could be exercised only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven for crackpots.” In Tinker, free speech zones were not the issue and the Supreme Court surely thought that analogizing that case (which involved the right of public high school students to wear arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War) to some tiny “crackpot corner” would surely bring home the dangers of trying to limit expression. Well, the crazy analogies of one generation have the tendency to become the everyday experiences of the next. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Free speech needs space to breathe, and policies like those above threaten to suffocate our rights.