The discussions and debates that spark student learning happen in the classroom, in student group meetings, on the quad, and basically all over campus. These debates are important and they need to happen. The free exchange of ideas that helps students learn can sprout spontaneously throughout the day as students live their lives. Despite this, some campuses have in place restrictions on where free speech can happen – limiting the free exchange of ideas to a certain building, square, or sidewalk. Restricting speech to these small “speech zones” contradicts the very idea behind free speech.
While it makes sense for a university to make sure that campus activities aren’t so loud they drown out a history seminar and that a late night protest isn’t stopping the freshmen dorms from getting a decent nights sleep, these restrictions on speech often go far beyond what is necessary, and in fact impede the learning process on campus. Rather than allowing students the opportunity to learn from each other’s speech and opinions outside the classroom, these policies can curb learning opportunities outside of the lecture hall.
We work with members of the campus community to remove policies that unnecessarily limit where speech can take place. We provide background information, legal advice, and organizing expertise to break the speech zone barrier.
Types of Restrictions on the Time and Place of Speech
Classic Speech Zones
A number of campuses restrict all student events—from protests to petitioning to educational events—to one or two small areas of campus. Often called “speech zones,” these policies almost always restrict speech more than is necessary to stop interference with classes and university business. By limiting where speech can happen, they impede the ability of students to create out of classroom learning opportunities. For example, at McNeese State University (pdf), distribution of literature, political campaigning, public demonstrations and public speeches are all restricted to zones of campus.
"...to assure demonstrations do not disrupt normal campus processes and operations, the following regulations regarding time, place and manner will apply. Public Demonstration Zones. The following locations shall be deemed Public Demonstration Zones: Zone A, Zone B. Organized groups may demonstrate on campus once during each Fall, Spring, and summer session in the assigned demonstration zone only."
Restrictions on the Time of Speech
Many campuses also put restrictions on the times available for student events. Often these restrictions are not necessary to stop classes from being disrupted or to avoid excessive noise during dorm sleeping hours. Unfortunately, they can severely limit the extracurricular speech of students. For example, at James Madison University (pdf), sound amplification on The Commons “is permitted only between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. or 5 and 6 p.m. Monday – Thursday, 12 p.m. – 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. on Fridays…”
Unnecessary Red Tape for Speakers, Events, Literature
Campuses should be encouraging students to speak and hold events on campus, however too many campuses require long approval periods, complex application procedures and other hurdles that can deter student leaders from holding events and all but prohibit events and speech that respond quickly to current events that spark student interest.
For example, Norfolk State University (pdf) requires students apply to hold an event two weeks before it is set to occur.
"Registered student organizations, faculty, and staff desirous of using campus facilities for university meetings and/or activities are required to complete a General Activity Requisition Form (GARF)…The GARF should be submitted ten (10) working days prior to the activity date to allow processing for approval by the student organization’s advisor(s) and University department officials."
At James Madison University (pdf), even petitioning requires advance approval. “Students or student organizations must obtain written approval from the coordinator of clubs and organizations, before petitioning or surveying students.”
At the University of Central Florida (pdf), “If the organization desiring to schedule an event does not complete a SAFE form fifteen (15) calendar days prior to the date of the scheduled event, the organization may be denied use of university facilities and may not be able to conduct the event.” Further, “Any student organization sponsoring a fundraising campaign, contest, competition or petition must register with the Office of Student Involvement.”