Welcome to the United States of America, otherwise known as the world’s largest free speech zone.
Unfortunately, too many college administrators don’t see it that way.
On campuses across Florida and the rest of the nation, people in charge of higher education have established euphemistically named “free speech zones” that limit the places where students can hold peaceful demonstrations, distribute literature or give speeches to passers-by. The clear implication: The rest of the campus is not open to free speech.
They rationalize these restrictions by claiming they are for the safety and security of students.
In reality, they are an abasement of everything that a university education is supposed to be about.
College students do not need to be protected from ideas with which they disagree. A primary function of the university is to expose students to such ideas, whether they come from professors, fellow students or guest speakers. From this exposure, students learn to implement critical thinking skills to properly assist them in decision-making.
State Rep. Bob Rommel of Naples has introduced legislation to help make sure the state’s public universities live up to that standard. A companion bill in the Senate was introduced by state Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala.
The Campus Free Expression Act would bar state schools from setting aside areas that restrict students from exercising their constitutionally protected First Amendment rights.
“To me, it’s just shocking that in the United States of America, we actually need a bill to protect freedom of speech,” Rommel told the Tallahassee Democrat.
It may be shocking, but it’s true.
A survey by the Brookings Institution found a majority of college students believe it is acceptable for a group of students to “loudly and repeatedly shout” to prevent a speaker from being heard. Nearly 20 percent of students said it was acceptable to use “violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.”
In the face of such shout-downs and violence, there has been a backlash against the suppression of speech on college campuses, and that is reflected in the numbers. Fewer schools have free speech zones today than did just a few years ago. That’s a positive trend.
But eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We need to guarantee that in case the pendulum swings back in the direction of those who would shout down their political opponents, the law will be there to deal with them.
While most of the recent cases have involved left-wing students (and sometimes administrators and faculty) attempting to silence conservative speakers, over the last decade or so this has been a problem that knows no ideological boundary.
In 2006, the assembly rights of University of Central Florida students were restricted when the radical left-wing Students for a Democratic Society was barred from holding a protest under the school’s “Free Assembly Areas” policy. In a more recent case that received national attention, white supremacist Richard Spencer was shouted down by hecklers at the University of Florida.
Neither the reincarnated SDS nor the risible Spencer are going to win many hearts and minds. But even if they were, the First Amendment is content neutral. Hate speech, whether from left or right, is protected speech. It should be combatted not with truncheons or a heckler’s veto, but with more speech. With better ideas. With well-articulated argument.
Students who resort to violence and shout-downs are simply demonstrating that they do not have much confidence in their ideas.
Administrators who impose free speech zones are demonstrating that they do not have much confidence in their students.
We must show that we are willing to defend the speech of all citizens, including students. Free speech zones have no place on college campuses.
Demetrius Minor is Florida coalitions director for Generation Opportunity.