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Finding a space for free speech: Looking at the past

This is the first of a two-part opinion-editorial series on free speech. The second part can be found here.

I don’t study law or have a degree in political science. I tilt my head and frown during conversations concerning public policy. I grimace at the idea of revising a constitution and operating by-laws for a campus club or organization. With such a decidedly apolitical background, it should come as no surprise that one of my initial ventures into constitutional rights came through hanging flyers on campus bulletins boards during my first student job at Washington State University Vancouver.

The connection between constitutional rights and flyers promoting events like “Dead Week Pancake Feed” and “The Volunteer Fair” may seem slim, but running from bulletin board to bulletin board across our rainy campus introduced me to WSU Vancouver’s free speech policy.

At WSU Vancouver, free speech exists in “limited public forum areas,” more commonly known as campus free speech zones. Some professors might argue free speech exists outside these zones within their classroom walls. After all, even the campus facilities use policy extols the virtues of free speech, deeming it a “highly valued and indispensable quality of university life.”

Nonetheless, campus policies restrict the full exercising of First Amendment rights to the campus free speech bulletin boards, the public walkways adjacent to public roads, the plaza outside the cafeteria and any other area designated by the chancellor.

But—for a university that has publicly expressed a commitment to protecting the First Amendment rights of it students, staff and faculty—how can such a policy exist and from where does it stem?

Since the 1980s, the majority of public universities and colleges have enacted policies scaling back both how and where students can freely exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Founded in 1989, WSU Vancouver was born into such an era—an era that arose out of the civil unrest and progressive grassroots movements of the 60s and 70s.

In an editorial for the New York Times, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, attributes this shift in part to “‘political correctness’ concerns about racially insensitive speech and sexual harassment, and in part because of the dramatic expansion in the ranks of non-faculty campus administrators.”

Essentially, the decades prior to the 80s, which saw the advancement of women’s rights and civil rights, may have led to a fear that free speech would infringe upon these newly gained forms of racial and gender equality.

This social shift paralleled a similar shift in constitutional law that witnessed the pendulum of free speech swing from one end of the spectrum to the other.

In the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School district, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that students have basic free speech rights while attending public schools.

Delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Fortas said, “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution…They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.”

With this ruling, the Court established the notion that students are entitled to exercise their right to free speech, provided it does not create significant disruption of the academic.

While the Tinker decision led to greater First Amendment protection during the 60s and 70s, several Supreme Court decisions during the 1980s led to the scaling back of the First Amendment rights granted to students at public schools.

In 1986, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Burger ruled in Bethel School District v. Fraser that “the Constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.”

Following this ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1988 case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that school authorities may choose to exercise control over student expression, provided that they do so with an educational purpose.

While those cases originated from free speech issues in the secondary education setting, the resounding effect the Supreme Court rulings have had on First Amendment rights in public universities evidences itself in the free speech zones that have become the norm over the past several decades.

Free speech zones, such as the ones found at WSU Vancouver, exist based on U.S. court decisions that the government may regulate the time, place and manner of free speech. A look at a 2012 study conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reveals that 62 percent of universities have codes restricting free speech in a manner similar to First Amendment policies at WSU Vancouver.

As a WSU Vancouver student, this is both alarming and encouraging.

Alarming because most Americans pride themselves on their right to free speech. Infringement of that right, no matter how subtle, generates an immediate pushback of fury and sudden indignation–we are Americans; we must have the unfettered right to say what we want, when and where we want to.

Yet, such a policy is also encouraging. Encouraging because it shows that there is a place in the University for free speech and we, as students, must have the courage to the take ownership of that place and truly utilize it to vocalize the issues that concern our campus community.

It’s encouraging because events like the upcoming “First Amendment Thursday,” occurring April 4 in the Dengerink Administration building, have not only been allowed to take place on campus but are supported by staff, faculty, students and administration alike. “First Amendment Thursday” demonstrates that free speech can transcend the free speech zone and underscores the importance of students taking the initiative to make their voices heard.

“First Amendment Thursday” shows that free speech has a place, but more students must show an interest in making it a priority. Once that happens, we can start looking toward the future in order to truly find a space for free speech that goes beyond bulletin boards and a plaza square.

Jacob Schmidt is a senior studying English and media communications. He chairs the Student Media Board.

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