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First Amendment: On college campuses, zoning out free speech

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Charles C. Haynes
October 3, 2013

Robert Van Tuinen’s run-in with campus police would be a funny story—if it weren’t such a disturbing example of how freedom of speech is under assault on many American college and university campuses.

As reported in The Daily Caller and elsewhere, Van Tuinen, a student at Modesto Junior College in California, was stopped from handing out copies of the Constitution on Sept. 17—the 226th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. College officials informed Van Tuinen that he could get permission to distribute the Constitution, but only if he pre-registered for time in the “free speech zone”—a tiny concrete slab big enough for two people. Looking over the calendar, an administrator told Van Tuinen that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.”

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Virtually everything about the Modesto Junior College “free speech” policy is wrongheaded and unconstitutional. As Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) explains, the college “sent police to enforce an unconstitutional rule, said that students could not freely distribute literature, placed a waiting period on free speech, produced an artificial scarcity of room for free speech with a tiny ‘free speech area,’ and limited the number of speakers on campus to two at a time.”

Outrageous, yes, but sadly all too common: According to research conducted by FIRE, one in six of the nation’s 400 top colleges and universities have “free speech zones,” Orwellian doublespeak for “restrict speech zones.” (To find a campus “free speech zone” near you, visit thefire.org.) When challenged, colleges sometimes back down—or lose in court.

In 2012, for example, a federal judge ruled that the University of Cincinnati’s “free speech zone” violated the First Amendment. But many policies limiting free speech on campus remain in force as instruments for chilling and limiting freedom of expression at scores of schools nationwide.

Why have so many American institutions of higher learning, reputed bastions of intellectual freedom, retreated into fear of freedom? Are school officials afraid of debate and dissent? Are they trying to keep people (outside the zone) from hearing words that may offend someone?

Whatever the bureaucratic anxieties that underlie speech restrictions on campus, “free speech zones” send the message to students that freedom of speech is a privilege doled out by administrators—not a fundamental human right.

Robert Van Tuinen’s classmates appear to have gotten the message. According to Van Tuinen, instead of rallying to his cause, student government leaders criticized him for besmirching the name of the college.

I encountered a similar attitude first-hand on a recent visit to a major university. When I asked the newly elected student body president what he planned to do in office, he excitedly described his proposal to establish a “free speech zone” on campus. When I asked why, he explained that students need a place to speak out for what they believe.

When I suggested that in the land of the free, the entire campus should be a “free speech zone,” he just stared at me as though I were speaking gibberish.

One can only hope that Robert Van Tuinen’s simple act of civil disobedience inspires other like-minded students to challenge unconstitutional regulations on free speech at public colleges and universities across America. They should take a page from Van Tuinen’s playbook and hand out copies of the Bill of Rights outside the zone—and challenge school officials to explain why students are barred from exercising their right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Email: Chaynes@newseum.org.



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