About Those Zones

by David French

Nathan, few things better exemplify the contemporary university attitude towards free speech than speech zones. To the modern university culture, free speech is a problem to be managed. In other words, it’s a bug — not a feature. And how do large government institutions manage their problems? Through vast and mind-numbing bureaucracies. One of the most telling passages from the original Crimson White article was this little gem:

According to Mallory Flowers, president of the University of Alabama’s chapter of Environmental Council, the student organization went through the proper process to acquire a permit for last Thursday’s rally. Flowers said the process was confusing because various offices on campus had different answers concerning whether the group needed a permit to hold their rally or not.

“Some offices told us there were designated free speech zones while others told us we needed to get a permit. At one point I was even given a map outlining First Amendment areas on campus. Finally, we learned we did need to acquire a permit from UA Grounds and Facilities,” Flowers said.

Translation: The university’s free-speech bureaucracy is so confusing that even the bureaucrats don’t understand it.

Of course a university can take steps to ensure that free speech doesn’t disrupt actual educational activities, but carving out First Amendment-free zones on otherwise-open campus spaces is a poor — and often unconstitutional — way to maintain the marketplace of ideas.