College Students Were 2012's Unsung Heroes for Free Speech

Students at our nation’s colleges and universities won a number of important victories for freedom of speech and the First Amendment over the past year. They vindicated their core expressive rights, fought back against repressive university practices, and taught us all valuable lessons about living in a free society.

Thanks in large part to campus activism by the UNC student group Young Americans for Liberty — including bringing in FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley for a Constitution Day speech in September, as well as hosting a taping of the Fox Business Network show Stossel to discuss UNC’s speech codes — we were able to convince the university administration to scrap several of its restrictive policies, including this one.

UNC is not just a good example of an institution removing several questionable policies at once (though it still maintains two other speech codes), it is an illustration of what can happen when passionate students work alongside us to reform their campuses. I hope that in 2013, UNC will finish the job it has started and revise its remaining speech codes, thus earning FIRE’s most favorable “green light” rating. For now, though, we can celebrate its removal of a former Speech Code of the Month, a major step in itself.

IU Southeast’s restrictions were enough to earn it our Speech Code of the Month designation for July 2012. This speech code also reminded us of the University of Cincinnati’s own “free speech zone,” a policy that suffered an embarrassing defeat in federal court in June. Cincinnati’s policy similarly limited all “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to a single area comprising 0.1% of its campus, and required that expressive activity even in this free speech zone be registered with the university ten working days in advance.

Thankfully, IU Southeast did not have to go nearly that far to understand its obligations under the First Amendment. It simply revised its own Speech Code of the Month in time for the 2012-13 academic year. The policy is now an exemplary model in terms of allowing unfettered discourse on campus, stating that “no reservation is required to use” McCollough Plaza and that “[t]he designation of McCullough Plaza as an assembly location should not be interpreted as limiting the rights of free expression elsewhere on campus. Other outdoor locations may be used as long as no disruptions of University functions occur.”

Happily, a look at Framingham State’s current policies reveals that it has removed this misguided policy from its materials for the 2012-13 academic year — and that, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it has just two speech codes keeping it from earning our highest “green light” rating. To truly meet its obligations as a public institution, Framingham State should look to revise these policies as well in the coming year.