In December, a student group at Grand Valley State University criticized the university’s Free Speech Zone Policy in a federal lawsuit for limiting free-speech activities to “two small speech zones” on campus and asking students to seek permission to express themselves. In March, GVSU reached a settlement with the student group by agreeing to pay the legal fees and costs of the group totaling $11,025.
In recent years, a lot of schools that continued the practice of free-speech zones have faced lawsuits. Gradually, public awareness has been raised regarding campus free speech issues and how students’ First Amendment rights should be protected.
“The free speech zones that Grand Valley set up, … are … time, place and manners restrictions,” said MSU professor of law Mae Kuykendall. “They have to recognize that the policy needs to be improved. They were just saying they were trying to regulate the crowd but they didn’t do it in a right way because there can’t be any suggestions for how you do it (practice free speech rights) in terms of regulating expressive activity.”
The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education is pleased that Grand Valley State University abolished free speech zones due to the lawsuit and student free speech rights are better protected as a result.
“College administrators often cite the need to maintain order to justify the use of so-called ‘free speech zones,’” said FIRE campus coordinator Tyler Coward. “FIRE’s litigation efforts have successfully challenged free speech zones and forced colleges across the country to abandon these unconstitutional restrictions on student speech.”
MSU College of Social Science professor Amanda Woodward talked about the reason why campuses set up such zones.
“Universities are concerned about disruption to the normal business of the university,” said Woodward. “It seems like many places are going to move away from that now with the pressure coming back to it. Most universities seem to also have policy in place saying you can engage in free speech as long as you are not disrupting the day-to-day operations of the university.”
MSU law professor Kevin Saunders explained in depth what a public forum is.
“In a public forum, you can still have what’s known as time, place and manner regulations,” said Saunders. “But time, place and manner regulations can’t be content-based. So if there is any reference to content and it is a public forum, that would be a free-speech issue, would be a violation unless you can meet strict scrutiny that is necessary to a compelling objective.”
Earlier last month, FIRE president and CEO Greg Lukianoff asked the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to increase the level of protections for campus free speech. That attracted a lot of attention from media and advocacy groups.
“Greg’s testimony recommends four approaches to better protect free speech on campus,” said Coward:
- To warn public colleges in each state that speech codes are unconstitutional and can unnecessarily cost the state money
- To support the CAFE Act, which will put an end to “free speech zones”
- To codify the Supreme Court’s definition of student-on-student harassment, set forth in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education
- To pass a federal New Voices Act to protect student journalists.”
“The states could decide that all state university ground, the entire state university campus, at least outside of the classroom and office buildings, are constitute public forum,” said Saunders. “And if they did, that would be free speech … and couldn’t be regulated based on content. So that would be a way states could increase the amount of free speech on campus. That’s why it is a policy matter rather than a constitutional law matter.”
Coward outlined FIRE’s mission in protecting campus free speech.
“From working collaboratively with college administrators to reform codes, to writing letters to colleges defending student rights, to legislative efforts, and litigation,” said Coward. “FIRE takes an all-of-the-above approach to reforming campus speech codes. We are happy to work with any college who wants to revise its speech policies.”
“I have a lot of confidence in FIRE,” said Kuykendall. “They did this litigation. In fact, one thing they are trying to do is teach people to better understand the First Amendment, especially on universities.”
“Free speech is one of the most important issues, especially in college campuses,” said the Founder of Young Americans for Liberty at MSU Pasha Tseravic. “It tends to be more limited. People need to be aware of their rights and aware of the stuff they can do, and really reach out the groups like us if they want.”
Woodward said that one of the strengths of educational institutions is providing opportunities for free speech and the foundation to help people build the skills to really engage in that in a productive way.