Some attendees at the recent Idaho GOP convention were surprised to find a designated “Free Speech Area,” complete with barricades, outside of the convention’s location. While it is not clear* whether the area was established by the University of Idaho as the hosting venue, by GOP members who organized the event or just by some clever Democrats trolling the event, the threat to free speech presented by so-called “free speech areas” is quite real.
According to research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 69 colleges have established “free speech zones” to limit expressive activities to very limited areas of their campuses. Many “free speech zone” policies not only severely limit the geographic area in which expression may occur, but also require pre-registration of the intended expression and place severe restrictions on the timing of such expression.
Although such rules at some colleges have been declared unconstitutional by some courts, that has not prevented many other colleges from employing such zones to limit the likelihood that students will encounter forms of speech and expression that they find controversial or unpalatable.
While courts have recognized that certain “time, place and manner” restrictions on speech may be permissible under the First Amendment to avoid infringing the rights of others (for examples, no bullhorns and loudspeakers to conduct a protest at 2 in the morning in a residential neighborhood), a court examining such restrictions will ask: 1) Does the regulation serve an important governmental interest? 2) Is the government interest served by the regulation unrelated to the suppression of a particular message? 3) Is the regulation narrowly tailored to serve the government's interest? 4) Does the regulation leave open ample alternative means for communicating messages?
Some courts have held that free speech zones, particularly those involving limited geographic areas in isolated areas of the campus, fail Parts 3 and 4 of this test.
More fundamentally, however, the idea of a “free speech zone” is offensive to the idea of free speech itself. Such a zone treats the speech and the speaker as some kind of nuisance or harm that must be limited, restricted and quarantined so as to not disturb the delicate sensibilities of the students.
To paraphrase Justice Brandeis, I believe that the best remedy for evil is more speech. Shutting down debate on controversial topics deprives students of the opportunity to have their ideas and beliefs challenged and to learn how to respond to such challenges through open and peaceful discourse. Silencing speech devalues the education being provided to the students, reduces the value of the school to the community at large and undermines the educational mission of the school.
* If you happen to know who is responsible for setting up the “Free Speech Area” at the GOP convention (shown below), please feel free to let me know.