Welcome, Peach Pundit readers! We are preparing to mothball the web site for the summer, but a recent bit of news requires our attention. As you have learned from Jon’s post, the UGA chapter of Young Americans for Liberty has filed a lawsuit against the University of Georgia because of its “free speech zone” policy. This is one of a number of YAL free speech lawsuits supported by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group which ThinkProgress amusingly describes as “the 800-pound Gorilla of the Christian Right” (YAL, for its part, is broadly libertarian). Below, our thoughts on the issue. If you like what you see, consider making a donation and/or subscribing to our quarterly print edition.
College campuses are usually thought of as forums where controversial ideas can be aired. For example, the only places left in England where individuals can speak without fear of prosecution are Parliament and the Union building at Oxford. The United States has a better record of protecting unpopular speech (cf. Brandenburg v. Ohio), but ironically free speech is most restricted at its public colleges and universities.
Students should be free to speak and organize as they please so long as they aren’t inciting sedition or physically disrupting classes — high bars to clear for the censor. The current policy at UGA goes much further by restricting speech to two sites on campus, Tate Plaza and Memorial Hall. The perverse consequence of this restriction is that the University’s iconic Arch is off-limits to student speech on the campus side unless students receive written permission from administrators 48 hours in advance — though students can step off campus to protest on the Athens-Clarke County side.
The two “free speech zones,” as they are called, are available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Those who wish to use the sites must file for the school’s approval in advance. Admirably, the administration is quick to grant approval to a wide variety of groups, but the very fact that approval is necessary conflicts with the spirit of free speech.
Demonstrations outside of the “free speech zones” are inconsistently enforced: Young Americans for Liberty was forced to pack up its debt clock display, but other political groups have protested outside of the approved areas without reprimand.
While “free speech zones” are common on college campuses, increasingly they are challenged in court. The 2004 district court ruling in Roberts v. Haragan gives us an idea of what to expect from the UGA case: “[T]o the extent [that a] campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the University’s students, irrespective of whether the University has so designated them.”
There are already forces moving on campus to chill unwelcome speech. The campus pro-life movement knows this well, as their promotional materials have been repeatedly trashed by vandals. There is no reason well-meaning UGA administrators should contribute to this climate by maintaining restrictive “free speech zones.”
—M. Blake Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.
UPDATE 5/5/14 12:59 P.M.: Here is a link to the suit, which lists plaintiffs and defendants.
(Like what you see? Support THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE!)