PHILADELPHIA, September 17, 2008—In a welcome reversal, Valdosta State University (VSU) has revoked its unconstitutional free speech zone policy, restoring free expression to the vast majority of VSU’s campus. Newly installed VSU President Patrick J. Schloss announced the new policy in a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The change comes in response to months of pressure from FIRE and removes VSU from FIRE’s Red Alert list, a distinction reserved for institutions demonstrating a severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of students or faculty members.
“President Schloss has distinguished himself from his predecessor by setting an admirable new course for student rights at VSU, and FIRE is pleased to be able to remove VSU from our Red Alert list of the worst schools for fundamental rights on campus,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Recognizing that free expression must be able to occur all over campus enriches discourse and will make VSU an engaging marketplace of ideas.”
VSU’s former free speech zone policy restricted the free expression of all “persons wishing to speak on campus” to one small stage, the use of which was restricted to two non-consecutive hours per day—and only on weekdays. The new policy effectively restores freedom of expression to VSU’s entire 168-acre campus, stating that expressive activity will be “uncensored” and may take place on the “campus green” without prior reservation or other regulation. The stage has been relegated to hosting additional “public discussion or debate” and is now open at all hours and available without regard to the content of the expressive activity taking place.
FIRE first wrote former VSU President Ronald Zaccari in November 2007, explaining that VSU “cannot lawfully quarantine free expression to just one area of the school’s 168-acre campus” and warning that VSU’s unconstitutional free speech zone was in violation of the school’s legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment. Over the next nine months, FIRE would write Zaccari twice more, as well as create a short film about VSU’s free speech zone. FIRE’s campaign to eliminate VSU’s free speech zone culminated in an advertisement in the 2009 edition of U.S. News & World Report‘s America’s Best Colleges issue highlighting VSU’s position on FIRE’s Red Alert list.
“Finally, Valdosta’s policy no longer limits student speech to a tiny free speech zone,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy William Creeley said. “Students should no longer have to fear retribution for expressing their views peacefully on campus. While the policy is by no means perfect, and could use several clarifications, FIRE will be happy to work with VSU to further improve the policy to the benefit of the entire VSU community.”
The policy change is the latest development in a turbulent year for freedom of expression at VSU. Over the past year, former VSU President Zaccari sparked national controversy by personally expelling former student T. Hayden Barnes on the basis of a satirical collage posted at Facebook.com. With FIRE’s aid, Barnes’ expulsion was finally reversed by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. After Barnes filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that Zaccari and other VSU administrators had violated his constitutional rights, Zaccari retired several months earlier than planned. That lawsuit is ongoing.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.