As the semester begins, a viral video has renewed debate about so-called “free speech zones” on college campuses.
On Thursday, an administrator at South Carolina’s Clemson University was caught on camera asking a local man to stop praying with students and leave the campus because he had not registered and received permission to use a so-called “designated free speech area”.
The video prompted widespread outcry, with the story being picked up by Fox News, the Daily Caller, the College Fix and other publications.
“Designated free speech areas” are actually proliferating on campuses nationwide. At least 70 universities had created some form of free speech zone as of 2013, the last year the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education took a tally. Yet in the past two years, backlash against these restrictive free speech zones has also intensified, with several universities and state legislatures moving to expand rights on campus.
“Free speech zones are ironically named, since they send the message that the overwhelming percentage of campus is not open to free speech,” says Ari Cohn, a free speech lawyer with FIRE. “What’s worse is that these free speech zones generally confine students’ exercise of their expressive rights to tiny areas that are often out of sight,” including a gazebo, a basketball court, and even one “in a small patch of grass prone to flooding.”
Robin Denny, director of media relations for Clemson, says the free speech zones apply only to people who don’t attend or work at the public University; they were created about a decade ago, partially out of security concerns and partially to ensure outsiders didn’t interrupt class or study.
“This is for people who are external to the University. … Students have freedom of expression on campus,” Denny says.
But Kyra Palange, the Clemson graduate student who videotaped the exchange between the praying man and the administrator, says she doesn’t agree with the University’s rules.
Far from soliciting students as Clemson claims, Palange says, the man was sitting quietly beside a sign inviting students to come pray with him. He never approached them—or even engaged with them unless they initiated contact, she says.
“I detest the whole idea of free speech zones,” Palange says. “Because this is a public university that’s funded by taxpayer dollars, someone doing what this man was doing—sitting on campus praying and interacting with students—should not have to get permission. The whole idea of free speech zones implies that there are places where people cannot express their ideas freely, and that’s a very dangerous road to be walking down.”
Palange is not alone in her criticism of free speech zones.
Since 2014, statehouses in Virginia, Missouri and Arizona have passed legislation banning free speech zones on campus and reaffirming the students’ rights to free speech anywhere.
Last month, the University of Colorado Boulder’s student government unanimously passed a resolution calling for administrators to eliminate free speech zones and declare the entire campus protected under the First Amendment.
Colton Lyons, the student body co-president, recently said that under current rules, “The free speech zones are so restrictive that only 5 percent of the student body could engage in free speech at one time without scheduling in advance.”
Marcus Fotenos, CU Boulder’s other student body co-president, tells Heat Street that student government has had several productive conversations with administration about formalizing these changes.
“Limiting speech on campus is completely antithetical to everything that university life stands for,” he says. “Restricting students’ ability to express their ideas freely diminishes the quality of debate and discussion that helps individuals progress in their thoughts and ideas.”
At Iowa State University, the student government renamed its free speech zone, calling it “Agora” to avoid misinterpretation.
“We don’t have free speech zones; the entire campus is free expression,” said student body president Cole Staudt.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.