by Jonathan Butcher
Inside Higher Ed last week ran an obituary for an idea that was doomed from the start: free speech zones on college campuses.
Those zones are often small, hard-to-find areas of campus, and school officials restrict individuals from handing out flyers or demonstrating outside of those areas.
The Inside Higher Ed obit says Los Angeles’ Pierce College has a zone no larger than three parking spaces. Last year, a congressional resolution in favor of free speech on campus, introduced by Rep. David Roe, R-Tenn., reported that the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s zone was a “flood-prone” area, and at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, the zone amounted to 0.01 percent of the campus.
Now, Inside Higher Ed says, “These zones are probably going to die.” Good riddance.
Doing away with these limits on free expression is an important first step to protecting free speech on public college campuses and can lead to thorough proposals that make protecting free speech a priority for public post-secondary institutions around the country.
Arizona abolished free speech zones on public college campuses in 2016, and now state legislators are considering a broader proposal. Protecting individuals’ rights to protest and demonstrate is a central feature:
A person who is lawfully present on a university or community college campus may protest or demonstrate on that campus. Individual conduct that materially and substantially infringes on the rights of other persons to engage in or listen to expressive activity is not allowed and is subject to sanction.
The proposal says that public areas of campus—such as sidewalks and campus lawns—are “public forums and are open on the same terms to any speaker.” Such provisions do not mean that a school has given up the idea of order on campus. The provisions also say the proposal is not meant to stop professors from keeping order in the classroom.
The proposal borrows ideas from Yale University’s Woodward Report, a key document written in the 1970s, that explained why colleges must make a priority of protecting free expression. Yale’s document said that individuals who prevent others from exercising their free speech rights should face consequences. For students, that could mean suspension or expulsion.
Arizona’s proposal is not as aggressive as Yale’s report, but the proposal says, “If a student has repeatedly been determined to have materially and substantially infringed on the expressive rights of another person, a punishment of suspension or expulsion … may be appropriate.”
These consequences are paired with another important provision to give individuals accused of violating someone else’s free speech rights certain due process protections. These include notice of the allegations and the right to defend themselves at a hearing.
While colleges should refer violations of the law to the proper authorities, for free speech incidents on campus, accused individuals should have a chance to defend themselves.
State lawmakers across the U.S. are considering ideas similar to the Arizona proposal, including policymakers in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan. As reported in The Daily Signal last year, North Carolina lawmakers adopted such a proposal in August. The University of Wisconsin’s governing board has also adopted these measures.
Inside Higher Ed reports that lawmakers in Colorado, Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri, and Utah have done away with free speech zones. These policymakers should look to Arizona’s proposal, along with the successes in North Carolina and Wisconsin, for more ways to protect free speech.
These ideas are already protecting free expression. Last October, protesters at the University of Wisconsin at Madison marched outside a building where an invited lecturer (TownHall.com editor Katie Pavlich) was speaking.
Reports of the protest said the students did not disrupt the event or try to shout down the speaker because of the new Wisconsin university policy that includes discipline for such actions.
Let’s hope these provisions to protect free speech on campus make more individuals have second thoughts about silencing someone else.
Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.