Free Speech Zones: A Backhanded Slap to Students

By Addie Mae Villas | USA

In the day of age of trigger warnings and safe spaces, free speech zones have been appearing on college campuses everywhere, restricting free speech for thousands. What once started as a way to provide a safe way for anti-Vietnam War protesters, has now become an easy pathway to suppress the voices of those with the “unpopular opinion” and dare to challenge the agenda of the universities. Not only are these free speech zones often completely unconstitutional, but they eliminate the discussion that is so often associated with higher levels of learning.

The fight for free speech has always been a hard fight battle. More times than not we see brave students taking on the establishment of their schools to fight for what they deserve. One prime example of this can be seen in Tinker v. Des Moines, a landmark case that stated students still have rights, mainly the First Amendment, when on public funded land. The decision was based on the fact that “Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.”, meaning that students have every right to peacefully protest, gather, and say anything they want without repercussions from the school. This case not only showed that students cannot be silenced but also became the basis for unlaw action against students. The fight for the First Amendment rights can also be seen in Healy v. James, which was judged on the Tinker Standards, and came to the basis that the organization, Students for a Democratic Society, had every right to use school buildings to have their meetings, seeing as public universities were public forums. This is also backed by the Equal Access Act that prevents schools from discriminating against religious, political, or philosophical groups that wish to have met and share their message.  There are many other cases that have set a precedence of not denying rights to students on public land, yet students are still be censored and confined to their views.

Currently, 33.9% of public colleges and universities received a red light rating from FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The red light rating is defined as a speech code that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies” this is supplemented by the fact that red light ratings are a direct violation of the First Amendment. This is down from 79% in 2009, but 33.9% is still a substantial amount of schools, especially when 52.8% of the schools looked at received a yellow light rating, that implies the school has policies that could be seen as suppression of students right to expression. With schools implementing free speech zones, sometimes as small as 616 square feet at Pierce College, it not only confines the reach of the messages trying to be advocated but also gives colleges and universities the option to pick and choose the rules they want to follow. The Pierce College case is important for the fact that the students were met with opposition for handing out Spanish versions of the Constitution. By suing Pierce College, Kevin Shaw hopes to show the violation of the First Amendment for restricting speech to a set zone, but also requiring a permit and a set time for the distribution of materials or the spreading of a message.

College campuses were once the place for healthy and lively discussion and debate. Now, it is filtered to ensure that no one is harmed by the truth and limits interaction and dialogue. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that colleges “a place of robust debate,” had become “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” Going back to the Tinker v. Des Moines case, a student doesn’t lose their rights to free speech or assembly when they enter the world of academia. In the words of George Orwell “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Although the truth may hurt, it still deserves to be shared and not restricted by the authority above.