Free Speech Zones on campus mute student rights

The average student at University of Houston has probably seen a man standing between M.D. Anderson Library and Philip Guthrie Hoffman Hall holding a sign with a list of sins saying if students do not change some of their behaviors, hell awaits them.

The area where he stands is known as Butler Plaza, one of the few Free Speech Zones on campus. These zones are the only places on campus where students can exercise their First Amendment rights.

An organization known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has taken notice and given UH a “RED” rating. This means our policy for expressing such rights is unconstitutional, with the lack of zones being the primary reason.

A university placed under the “RED” rating is susceptible to being sued by FIRE, which can lead to the university being forced to pay fees and to update their policies in accordance with FIRE’s standards.

The UH administration is aware that the zones violate free speech and has removed them from the new policies; however, the policies haven’t gone into effect. They were officially completed in May 2013, but the administration has yet to sign them.

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FIRE defines a speech code as any campus regulation that punishes, forbids, heavily regulates or restricts a substantial amount of protected speech.

The current UH policy restricts protected speech in several ways with the use of the Free Speech Zones. The zones do not allow protests outside because of the rules forbidding students from using amplified sound.

Amplified sound is measured by decibels, and the Free Speech Zones limit students from exceeding 80 decibels, which can easily be surpassed by speaking above conversational tones.

The current Free Speech Zones also make it difficult for registered student organizations on campus to hold activism events, as there are several forms to fill out before they would be allowed to hold any sort of event that could be considered exercising free speech. On the other hand, it only takes one piece of paper for outside protesters — such as the man from Bulldog Ministries — to hold their event.

A board member of the College Republicans at UH, who wished to remain anonymous, said the University’s Free Speech Zones limit people’s exposure to other ideas.

“When we are exposed, we grow ourselves,” said the board member. “People get used to the idea of being able to avoid dissonance.”

Free Speech Zone
One of the main things UH guarantees with a graduate’s diploma is a well-rounded education — allowing students to avoid free speech hinders them in the long run. 

“I personally don’t like walking through them and being nagged, but I would be against getting rid of them,” said management information systems sophomore Madison Richard, who affiliates with the Democratic party.

It’s not about what party students align with, but rather the fact that by our country’s Constitution, everyone is guaranteed free speech. These zones only limit and hurt those rights.

The administration must make it a priority to get rid of the zones and allow students to exercise their rights. It will only help the campus grow with the new ideas.

Innovation is not built on suppression of ideas, but the fact that someone had a new idea. We cannot be a powerhouse without the power of students to speak their minds.

This article was originally published in The Cougar, a student publication of University of Houston and can be found here

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