Blog: Moot Court topic: the zoning of speech

Thursday, February 18, 2010

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The zoning of speech!? It happens across the country, in many kinds of situations:

  • Restricting where adult businesses can locate.
  • Creating buffer zones near abortion clinics.
  • Limiting speech on public college campuses.
  • Relegating demonstrators to cages and pens.

The prevalence of the practice of zoning speech explains why it’s the subject of the 20th Annual National First Amendment Moot Court Competition, co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville today and tomorrow.

Law student competitors from 36 law schools are arguing the fictional case of Roberts v. Town of Summerville, which involves a challenge to a town protest policy that confines protesters to three so-called free-speech zones. One group contends that its First Amendment rights were violated after they were placed in a less accessible, less desirable zone.

Supporters of speech zones contend they’re a reasonable way to provide security, prevent traffic congestion and further other objectives not related to the suppression of speech. Detractors counter that these zones limit speech and often serve as a convenient guise to target or at least mute those with disfavored political viewpoints.

William & Mary Law School professor Timothy Zick, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the issue, warns that “governments have learned to manipulate geography in a manner that now seriously threatens basic First Amendment principles.” He examines the phenomenon of zoning speech in his informative book, Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

John Whitehead, head of the Rutherford Institute, also has warned about zoning speech. “The increasing use by government and law enforcement officials of ‘free speech zones’ and other stifling tactics to purge dissent has largely undermined the First Amendment's safeguards for political free speech,” he wrote in a 2008 column in the Colorado Independent.

A major problem with free-speech zones is that they essentially designate all other space as speech-free zones — places where people cannot exercise their First Amendment freedoms.

That flies in the face of the First Amendment and freedom.

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