Gagging expression

By WND Staff

Recently, the board of governors at the University of West Virginia voted to lift restrictions that had been placed on the free speech and expression of students on the university campus. Although the decision came after months of debates, protests and legal wrangling, I wonder if school officials really understood the lesson that was taught – or how relevant it is to our world today.

University campuses like West Virginia provided the breeding ground for much of the protests that gave rise to needed change in the 1960s – protests that altered the conscience of our nation and created a legacy for future dissenters.

The winds of change that swept through the 1960s touched those who were coming of age in some life-altering ways. Technological advances were gaining ground, and the world seemed a little smaller with every new discovery. President Kennedy talked of men on the moon and pushed Americans to ask what they could do for their country. Martin Luther King Jr., marched on Washington, D.C., to demand equality for African-Americans. And U.S. soldiers fought and died in wars whose politics they barely understood.

Young people were turned on to peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll – and turned against the culture of the establishment. It was a time of dissent and protest, and they took every opportunity available to rail against the injustices of segregation and war. Suspicious of the government, unhappy with events on the world stage, determined to voice their opinions on the way the country was being run, they resorted to sit-ins, boycotts and nonviolent protests.

Yet out of that period of political, social and cultural upheaval and revolution emerged a fierce devotion to the rights of free speech and assembly afforded by the First Amendment. From sit-ins and protests at the University of California at Berkeley to Kent State University, acts of civil disobedience and intellectual outrage set the stage and the example for generations of dissenters to come, particularly in the college forum. As the U.S. Supreme Court said, a public university is the “quintessential free market of ideas.”

Three decades later, free speech in the college arena faces possible extinction – or at least severe restrictions – if some college administrators get their way. By designating “free speech zones” on campus, university officials have attempted to establish strict guidelines for what form student expression might take, how many students may participate and when they may choose to do so.

The most recent free-speech zone policy to educate students about how to restrict their First Amendment rights was put in place by administrators at West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown, W. Va. But like so many other free-speech zone policies attempted and discarded at other universities, this policy seemed to be aimed at restricting dissent rather than regulating student activity.

For example, according to news reports, in October 1999, a Christian preacher was banished from Gay Pride Week for dissenting outside the zone. In March 2000, College Republicans were prevented from passing out flyers in the student union during the school’s Festival of Ideas. And in November 2001, a student was removed from a Disney recruitment seminar after passing out anti-Disney pamphlets in the lobby beforehand.

This past April, David C. Hardesty Jr., president of WVU, fine-tuned a campus-wide policy that restricted student expression and assembly to designated areas on and around the university campus. He also granted university administrators the right to discipline individuals who violate the policy by speaking out or assembling in an area outside the “free expression areas.”

Classifying speech activities into five categories (symbolic speech, posting signs, distributing literature, picketing and protests and demonstrations), the “Policy on Freedom of Expression” restricted “protests and demonstrations” to designated “Free Expression Areas,” which were to be used for the purpose of “peaceful dissent, protest or demonstration.” The policy also restricted student organizations and individuals from distributing literature inside university dormitories or demonstrating or protesting at special events without first making a reservation to do so.

Yet WVU’s “Free Expression Areas” – described as the size of a small classroom, fitting roughly 15 individuals – constituted less than 5 percent of the total campus area at a school with a student population of roughly 22,000. Many areas traditionally considered appropriate for public expression, including several main campus buildings, as well as extensive portions of the grounds around the campus, the student center and the building which houses the offices for the campus newspaper, didn’t even make the cut to qualify for the policy’s free-speech zones.

Under the terms of the so-called “free speech” policy, actual free speech was rendered meaningless. For example, the West Virginia Animal Rights Coalition, a student group which protests against the use of animals for research purposes, would have been prohibited from doing so in the vicinity of the University’s various research facilities and most of the areas around the Health Sciences Center.

If the Students for Economic Justice had desired to protest and demonstrate against the threat of corporate globalization, it would have been prohibited from doing so in the vicinity of the Business and Economics Department. And the policy also would have prevented African-American students from protesting in front of the Center for Black Culture and Research.

Fortunately, WVU school officials have now “seen the light.” After being sued by The Rutherford Institute and criticized by other concerned civil libertarians, the university’s board of governors voted to adopt a revised policy. Although this group of school officials backed down from this particular fight, however, there are still those in power who have little respect for the values that freedom of speech represent. Thus, those of us who do respect the First Amendment rights of students and student-led organizations must continue to battle for free speech and expression.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.