Lessons learned: setting speech free on campus

Sunday, May 18, 2003

All over America this month, commencement speakers are urging graduates to build a better world.

It’s the sort of message that resonates at graduation: Any individual with a sense of purpose and passion truly can make a difference.

When I have the opportunity to speak on campuses, I often deliver a similar challenge, urging young people to cherish and support our First Amendment freedoms. Like those commencement speakers, I’m often left to wonder whether anyone in the audience will embrace the challenge.

Then I met Sara Goff.

Goff, a 24-year-old graduate student in theater from Midland, Mich., attending Western Illinois University, approached me after a recent presentation at the school and said she was trying to make a difference by challenging the university’s policy on freedom of speech.

Like many schools, Western Illinois had designated specific areas in which students could speak out or protest. Students wanting to make use of these “free-speech zones” were required to apply for approval 48 hours in advance and could not use the free-speech area more than three times in 30 days.

It’s a technique universities use to contain dissent and limit disruption. It’s an understandable impulse, but a significant restriction on freedom of expression on campus.

Designating certain areas for freedom of speech is tantamount to declaring the rest of the campus a censorship zone. At public universities, these policies constitute government restrictions on speech, raising significant First Amendment issues.

Courts have upheld the right of government bodies to regulate the “time, place and manner” of public protest and speeches, as long as the administration doesn’t favor some viewpoints over others. That noted, courts have also been reluctant to permit government limits on areas traditionally regarded as public forums. Overall, the law remains unsettled.

When I spoke to Goff at Western Illinois University, she was just about to embark on a campaign that could serve as a model for student activism:

  • Goff had done her homework, reviewing court cases and concluding that the Western Illinois policy was overly broad and vague.
  • She published a newsletter detailing her concerns, asking for revocation of the university’s policy and publishing both WIU’s free-speech guidelines and its student creed, which calls for “actively advancing the goals that better Western Illinois University.”
  • Drawing on her theater background, Goff organized a silent march by students and faculty, who wore gags in school colors. Goff also contacted the local newspaper.

The First Amendment Center is a nonpartisan, educational institution, and we couldn’t participate in Goff’s campaign. Our role is to provide research and information about the First Amendment, allowing Americans to exercise their First Amendment freedoms in a more informed way.

Still, I thought I knew what was coming. There’s been a fairly predictable pattern to these controversies: Students protest to no effect, someone files a lawsuit and the university digs in its heels.

But I underestimated the administration at Western Illinois University. The university acknowledged students’ concerns, researched the matter and in less than a week after the protest, repealed the policy.

“There’s no better place for free and open expression of ideas than a public university,” Western Illinois University President Al Goldfarb said. “Our entire university represents the ideal of freedom of expression. I do not believe that we would ever want to restrict free speech to a specific area on campus.”

Similar restrictions on free speech remain at other campuses, but here’s hoping that the commitment to free expression demonstrated by Sara Goff and WIU’s leadership will serve as an inspiration to others.

This happy ending at Western Illinois University is a valuable reminder that one of the best ways to address infringements on the First Amendment is through utilizing the First Amendment itself.

Freedom of speech can be a powerful tool in building a better world, particularly when those in power take the time to listen.

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