Free speech zones: where and what are they?

The university has three  designated free speech zones for people and organizations to register in if they wish to assemble. These zones are set up so demonstrations do not interrupt the academic environment of the university. File Photo/The Lion’s Roar

The university regulates assemblies and free speech on campus via free speech zones to ensure such activities do not affect the learning environment.

“We have three free speech zones on our campus,” said Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Jim McHodgkins. “We have by the fountain. We have by the steps over by the theater and student union area. Then we have the square that’s in front of the Pennington Center. We have those there because they’re not close by academic buildings, which would cause a disruption in the classes.”

By law, the university can set time and place. This means that the university can designate where and for how long people can come on campus and speak to the public.

“When we have free speech, we set a time, usually about two hours that people can be in the area,” said McHodgkins. “That’s for if they’re doing speech that’s loud and speaking out. We put them on places on campus. They have to be places where there’s people, but we don’t want to disrupt the academic integrity of the school.”

McHodgkins explained that the university is also in charge of setting what’s called manner.

“We also can set manner, which means we don’t allow them to use amplifiers or speaker systems because that carries the noise,” said McHodgkins. “Outside sources we require to have seven days in advance, so we can make sure we don’t have another event going on that they could disrupt, and we can have police monitor in certain locations. So, they can monitor the situation to protect our students and protect the speakers.”

Controversies are often sparked by people who view this policy as infringing on their first amendment rights.

“We have been sued by a person who just showed up from off campus and wanted to have an assembly right then,” said McHodgkins. “Well, our policy says if you’re from off campus, you have to do it seven days in advance, so we can make sure where all the stuff is. We explained this to the individual, and they didn’t like that they couldn’t do it right when they wanted to wherever they wanted to. So, they sued us.”

That lawsuit, which the university won, lasted seven years, and when the individual decided to appeal, the university paid them instead.

“Our policy is well-known overall,” said McHodgkins. “It’s online. Some of these people, the lawsuits we’ve had were because that’s what they do for a living. Some of them are travelling. They go from campus to campus to campus, and they speak. Now, if someone doesn’t allow them, or if they get attacked, then they can sue the university or the individuals. That’s another way for them to make some money on it.”

McHodgkins described the policy as a way to provide access to free speech but also to protect the integrity of the school.

“Sometimes the students may not like what the speakers are saying, but we have to give them the right to say it,” said McHodgkins. “We are a public institution. We can’t keep people from saying what they want to say whether we agree with them or not.”

According to McHodgkins, the policy is directed more towards the right to assemble than the right to free speech.

“Ours is more like assembly,” said McHodgkins. “If you’re out, and you want to get a crowd around you and you’re expressing your thought to a large crowd, we consider that an assembly. At that point, we’re saying you need to register that. Just so we can help protect those parties on all sides. If you want to go out and just talk with a bunch of people about what you believe in, you can pretty much do that anywhere on campus. We can’t stop you. We don’t stop you unless you’re disrupting something.”

Individuals are allowed to express their thoughts one-on-one anywhere on campus. However, if a crowd begins to form and cause a disruption, authorities may step in.

“If there’s a huge crowd forming, we tell them, ‘OK, you need to at least take your tone down,’” said McHodgkins. “You can’t yell to get a crowd there, but if you and I are talking, and it gets to be a little loud, and people start crowding around, we would just ask you guys if you could keep the volume down.” 

According to McHodgkins, free speech zone policies differ from one institution to another but overall follow the same court ruling.

“Almost everyone does what the courts say: time, place and manner,” said McHodgkins. “Now, every group has it a little differently how they do it. Some schools have a free speech spot where they can say anything, go on at any time. Those spots are usually not in the middle of a crowded area. Some have it where it’s more restricted. We have been through some court cases, and the court system says our policy is acceptable. We try to make sure that anybody who wants to speak is given the opportunity to speak. We don’t say, ‘We don’t like what you’re saying. You can’t say it here.’”

McHodgkins warned against violence from any party in free speech zones.

“You have the right to say it,” said McHodgkins. “He has the right to be upset about it. So, we don’t want you fighting about it. You can discuss it, but nothing physical. Our goal is just to keep people safe.”

Should violence occur at a free speech zone, police officers at the site will step in.

“If it escalated to a physical manner, then there would probably be people arrested,” said McHodgkins. “Usually, when we have a larger group of free speech, we have police officers at the event along with some staff members. We try to keep those groups apart. If it escalates, then there will be people arrested. It may not necessarily be the speaker. It may be the people who are against the speaker. It really would depend on the situation. It would depend on who is escalating it. Just because someone is saying something you don’t like, doesn’t give you the right to be violent.”