Not So Free Speech

Every year on September 17th, we celebrate the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution being signed. This important day when we celebrate the enumeration of our rights would seem to be a day that none would question copies of the very document celebrated being passed out.

That assumption would be incorrect, though, as college across the nation have begun stifling speech in the name of “time, place and manner” policies. Administrators across the nation simply do not care about student speech anymore. Many feel that it is their duty to protect students from speech that might offend them. By doing this, they have effectively stifled student speech. Out of these policies is born a disgusting abuse to free speech known as the “free speech zone.” 

My experience at Modesto Junior College is not unusual. The days building up to Constitution Week saw lots of excited planning of events. MJC YAL had interesting plans, but since we had not found an adviser, there was little chance of us hosting an official event on campus. I went out of my way to find out. Administrators gave me the usual bureaucratic run around that left me scratching my head.

The idea came to me to simply pass out the U.S. Constitution. This plan was so innocuous that it really should not have even garnered the interest of anyone except maybe to acquire a copy of the Constitution. To add an extra bit to my work, I placed a YAL palm card in every copy of the Constitution hoping to get a few people to check out the group. It all started well, with students generally wanting a copy of the Constitution.

I think we handed out around 50 copies of the Constitution before campus security came over to question our right to pass things out on campus. He really didn’t care that we were passing out the Constitution — much like the administrator he directed us to. You can see by their reactions that they are not used to being stood up to by students. They basically thought this was a cut and dry case of “You didn’t ask for permission, now do so or leave.” 

The only thing differentiating this situation from any other is that I filmed it. I got every moment of the school telling me that I had to ask permission before being put in a box to exercise my free speech.

In doing so, I gave the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) everything they could have ever wanted in documentation. The best advice that I can give anyone when dealing with “authority” is to video tape it. If you ever get told to stop filming, refer them to the Glik decision of the First Circuit Court. This decision upholds your right to film any public official in a public place.

FIRE took my footage and ran with it. Many media outlets covered my incident and the public response has been amazing. The public clearly believes that free speech is important. Though winning in the public view is big, we seemed to have failed to garner a change from the administration who still do not see that the policies are the real problem. MJC’s President went so far as to call the media’s portrayal of MJC “unfair.” This fight is not over yet. Soon, FIRE and I will be releasing information on the next step.

The fight for freedom is an eternal fight. This is merely one battle. FIRE reports that one in six colleges has a free speech zone. Most colleges have vague and otherwise unconstitutional speech codes. We cannot stop to see where this fight goes.

There are speech codes and “free speech zones” that need to be fought on your or neighboring campuses. Empower your fellow students with the knowledge that they can fight and win. If you need evidence of that, look no further than the University of Cincinnati which FIRE helped the YAL chapter fight their unconstitutional speech codes and they now have the best/more free speech codes in the nation.

This is what we strive for. We can and will win.

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