Federal Judge Overturns Campus ‘Free Speech Zone’

Here’s something to cheer about. A federal court has struck down a policy at the University of Cincinnati that confined free speech to a tiny corner of campus, in an Orwellian “free speech zone.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education details the limits this public university tried to put on the right to protest:

Prior to today’s court order, UC had required all “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to be held in a “Free Speech Area” that comprises just 0.1% of the university’s 137-acre West Campus. University policy further required that all expressive activity in the free speech zone be registered with the university a full ten working days in advance, threatening that “[a]nyone violating this policy may be charged with trespassing.”

In this particular case, a group of students wanted to collect petition signatures but were told they could so so only at the McMicken Commons Northwest Corner, which the ruling notes is less than 1/10th the size of a football field, and told them that if they collected signatures anywhere else on campus they would be subject to arrest. The judge said:

As a threshold matter, and as the Supreme Court of the United States has clearly stated: “It is offensive – not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society – that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.” Moreover, the precedents of the Supreme Court “leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” … While universities surely have a right to regulate use of their property, they must do so narrowly and the mere “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of a disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression on a college campus.”

The court correctly ruled that the university’s restrictions all but eliminate any right to spontaneous speech or protest, as all demonstrations and rallies of any kind require a minimum notice of five working days. The ruling does note that some large and more disruptive protests may require planning on the part of the university, that does not justify restricting every instance of public demonstration before it even begins:

The University asserts that it maintains the notice requirements to enable it to do what is necessary for activities to take place under peaceful and safe conditions. Indeed there may be some speech, such as particularly large protests or rallies, that requires the University to take security or logistical steps to ensure the safety and

order of campus. But here the University does not restrict its regulation to large demonstrations, or those using sound amplification, or any number of potentially justifiable criteria. Rather, the University paints with a broad brush to encompass all speech that may be classified as a “demonstration, picket, or rally” and has failed to

narrowly tailor its policy. Such a restriction simply cannot be justified on the basis the University asserts.

An excellent result. Bravo to the judge.

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  • d cwilson

    I remember when the entire country was considered a “free speech zone”.

  • left0ver1under

    No doubt restriction to the “free speech zone” was only enforced upon those whose opinions differed with the dictatorial administration.

    I’d bet those who agreed with their narrow and narrow minded views of the administration could ask for petition signatures anywhere.

  • lofgren

    I’d bet those who agreed with their narrow and narrow minded views of the administration could ask for petition signatures anywhere.

    With this kind of mentality, petitioning is itself wrong. Only unquestioning support will be tolerated.

    I have to admit I am strongly suspicious of all “time and place” restrictions. I concede that some are necessary in order to ensure public safety, but I can’t help the nagging sense that the appropriate time and place always seems to be far away and not right now. Even “public safety” leaves a lot of room for subjective judgement, which is inevitably going to result in harsher restrictions on people with potentially status quo-altering opinions.

  • JoeBuddha

    I thought GW had outlawed speech EXCEPT in free speech zones!

  • Trebuchet

    I clicked on the link to the original article and was interested to see that the complainant was an organization called “Young Americans for Liberty”, which was collecting signatures for an anti-union “right to work” amendment. Still a good call by the court.

  • This is very much like the law passed by the QUebec legislature designed to stop the recent protests. It hasn’t been to court yet, but I hope it has the same fate as this one.

  • geocatherder


    I was fortunate to get my recent MS degree (BS 1980, MS 2011… I’m an old lady graduate!) at a very laid-back school that tolerates almost all kinds of assemblies, anywhere. It’s interesting; you can get prompted to consider another point of view on your way to the student union for lunch. But my former school is a downtown campus, and sees itself as part of the city. Very wise thinking.

  • dan4

    @1: You remember incorrectly. “Time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech aren’t exactly recent things.

  • criticaldragon1177

    Ed Brayton,

    This is good news! The courts doing their job and enforcing the Constitution and protecting our rights.