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New University President Ends Free Speech Quarantine

Even after being embarrassed publicly for violating a student's First Amendment rights, VSU decided to maintain its brazenly unconstitutional free speech policy.
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It's September and the collegiate school year is back in full gear. That means I'm back to digging through claims by students and faculty across the country that their rights have been violated by overzealous campus administrators. Unfortunately, my experience as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education tells me that a shocking number of these claims will prove meritorious. Therefore, it's pleasant to start the new academic year on a positive note and celebrate a hard fought victory.

As those of you who read my posts might remember, for the last year I have been criticizing Valdosta State University (VSU) in Georgia, both for its abominable treatment of expelled student Hayden Barnes and its incredibly restrictive free speech zone.

Hayden was kicked out of VSU after posting a collage on Facebook, for which he was deemed a "clear and present danger" by the then-president of the university. Thankfully, after FIRE saw to a good drubbing in the court of public opinion and the filing of a free speech lawsuit, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia overturned VSU's expulsion of Hayden.

Yet even after being embarrassed publicly for violating a student's First Amendment rights, VSU decided to maintain its brazenly unconstitutional free speech policy. How bad was this free speech zone? Possibly the worst I've ever seen. It limited free expression to just one tiny ten foot stage in a huge 168-acre campus. What's more, students and faculty were only allowed to engage in free speech for two nonconsecutive hours per day (12-1 PM and 5-6 PM), and even then only after providing VSU administrators with two days advance notice! Finally, to top it off, the space was unavailable on weekends. Have something to say on a Saturday? Sorry, at VSU, you were out of luck. You can see the zone for yourself in this video from last year, and the full policy in all of its repressive glory can still be seen here.

So my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), stayed after VSU all summer for this laughably unconstitutional free speech zone. We even went so far as to take out a full-page ad in the 2009 America's Best Colleges edition of U.S. News & World Report, calling out the school by name.

Finally, just two weeks after the ad hit newsstands across the country, the new president of Valdosta State, Patrick J. Schloss, announced a dramatic reform of VSU's free speech zone, rightfully opening up the entire campus to expressive activities. Though their new policy is not perfect, and is still more confusing and restrictive than necessary, it is worlds better than the old policy.

Many heartfelt huzzahs to the new president for taking such decisive action! We wish more university presidents would be willing to reform their unnecessarily restrictive policies.

I am often asked where the trend towards quarantining free speech to obscure areas began. The truth is, I'm not sure. I believe free speech zones have been implemented on campuses across the country in part due to the absence of clear guidance from the Supreme Court about the limitations on so-called "reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions." Like night follows day, it seems that any loophole to the general rule of free speech is quickly exploited by those who prefer to avoid the offensive or unsettling at all costs. As Phil Kerby, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, once said: "Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second."

Furthermore, speech zones took off on campus in the past 20 years due to the hyper-bureaucratization of colleges and universities. Schools now employ armies of administrators who seem to want to regulate every single aspect of their students' lives. Meanwhile, college costs continue to rise, partially to maintain this army of bureaucrats.

One of the most worrisome questions I receive is, "Why is censorship on campus important?"

Now I understand that in light of fighting two wars and staring down the looming collapse of our economy, campus censorship might strike people as comparatively unimportant. But I also think that it's crucial for people to understand that students who are educated in an environment of censorship often adopt some very troubling and even undemocratic ideas about free speech.

When students, for example, get together and steal or destroy newspapers that contain ads or articles that they dislike, I have to wonder what raising a generation so used to being censored and relegated to little speech cages means for the future of all of our liberties. As a wise man once said, "A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it, and will not even know when it has lost it."

So again, hats off to Valdosta State President Schloss. I am always happy to work with people who are willing to make serious reforms in the name of free speech.

Now, if we could just convince the presidents of Brandeis, Tufts, Colorado College, and Johns Hopkins to take the same attitude...

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