Valdosta State: Silence on Free Speech Zone

January 4, 2008

Here at FIRE, we’ve been checking the mail twice a day, making sure our phone lines are open and sending out test faxes, but everything seems to be in working order.

That means there’s absolutely no excuse for Valdosta State University’s (VSU’s) continuing silence regarding our concerns about the school’s blatantly unconstitutional free speech zone. In our November 30 letter to VSU President Ronald M. Zaccari, we outlined the extensive constitutional infirmities contained in VSU’s “Free Expression Area Guidelines,” which limit student expression to a tiny portion of VSU’s campus for just two hours a day. Specifically, FIRE wrote:

VSU’s Free Expression Area Guidelines are riddled with constitutional deficiencies; indeed, the policy is in direct conflict with VSU’s legal and moral obligation as a public institution of higher learning to uphold the First Amendment.

First, VSU’s requirement of advanced reservations for all “[p]ersons wishing to speak on campus” impermissibly burdens the exercise of free speech on campus. VSU’s reservation policy effectively requires that all free expression occurring on campus be explicitly registered and reserved at least two days prior. The operation of such a reservation system is patently incompatible with the First Amendment rights of VSU students and faculty. Expressive activity often involves spontaneous responses to unfolding events; to require prior reservations for all campus speech is to suppress free and open discourse on campus.

Second, VSU cannot lawfully quarantine free expression to just one area of the school’s 168-acre campus—specifically, a single stage located on the Palms Quadrangle on VSU’s Main Campus. (It would seem that VSU students hoping to engage in free expression on the school’s North Campus—which, at 83 acres, is roughly the same size as the Main Campus—are simply out of luck.) Even if this stage comprised a full acre, it would still account for less than 1% of VSU’s total campus. To impose such a stark restriction on the free expression of VSU’s more than 11,000 students demonstrates a brazen contempt for the indisputable importance of free expression to a modern liberal education.

Third, VSU cannot constitutionally limit free expression on campus to a mere two hours per day. Enforcing such an arbitrary and restrictive prohibition makes a mockery of VSU’s stated mission to “[e]xpand the boundaries of current knowledge, and explore the practical applications of that knowledge, through excellence in scholarship and creative endeavors.”

After providing guidelines to assist VSU in promulgating new speech policies consistent with the First Amendment, FIRE asked for a response by December 19, 2007.

So far, we’ve heard nothing.

It’s easy to understand why FIRE is probably not President Zaccari’s favorite correspondent as of late. After all, since VSU expelled student T. Hayden Barnes last May for engaging in protected speech, we’ve been shining a bright light on Zaccari’s sorry record on student liberty by naming VSU to FIRE’s Red Alert list, an embarrassing dishonor reserved solely for those schools displaying “severe and ongoing disregard” for student rights.

That said, FIRE continues to await VSU’s response. Courts have consistently held that unconstitutional free speech zones like the one at VSU just don’t come close to passing constitutional muster. VSU should realize that unilaterally dismantling their free speech zone now is the best way to ensure that a federal judge doesn’t force them to do so later.

Schools:  Valdosta State University

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