Turning College Into a No-Thought Zone

Higher education exists to advance and transmit knowledge, and learning requires disagreement and argument. Even the most vocational curriculum -- accounting, physical therapy, civil engineering, graphic design -- represents knowledge accumulated through trial and error, experimentation and criticism. That open-ended process isn’t easy and it often isn’t comfortable. The idea that students should be protected from disagreeable ideas is a profoundly anti-educational concept. Try getting away with tiny "speech zones" at Berkeley. Photographer: Max Whittaker/Getty Images

Last September, Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, a student at Citrus Community College near Los Angeles, was collecting signatures on a petition asking the student government to condemn spying by the National Security Agency. He left the school’s designated “free speech area” to go to the student center. On his way there, he saw a likely prospect to join his cause: a student wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt. He stopped the student and they began talking about the petition. Then an administrator came out of a nearby building, informed them their discussion was forbidden outside the speech zone, and warned Sinapi-Riddle he could be ejected from campus for violating the speech-zone rule.

Sinapi-Riddle has now sued Citrus College, a state institution, for violating his First Amendment rights by, among other things, demanding that “expressive activities” be confined to the 1.34 percent of campus designated as a “free speech area.” Perhaps the most outrageous part of his experience is how common it is. The vague bans on “offensive” language and other "politically correct" measures that most people think of when they imagine college speech codes are increasingly being joined by quarantine policies that restrict all student speech, regardless of its content.

Speech-zone rules require students to ask permission to do such things as hand out leaflets, collect petition signatures, or give speeches; demand that students apply days or weeks in advance; and corral their activities in tiny areas of the campus, often away from the main pathways and quads. The rules aren’t about noise or crowds. They aren’t about disrupting classes. They’re about what you can do in public outdoor areas, and they apply even to just one or two people engaged in unobtrusive activities. They significantly infringe on students’ constitutionally protected speech.

But judging from some of the public response to the Citrus College case, a lot of people think that’s just fine. Debating national security issues, they seem to think, has no place at state colleges.

“The creation of the free-speech zones, and the enforcement of sound-level ordinances, was not to prevent free speech, but give religious or political speech a time, place, and manner that would allow speakers to address their messages to audiences on campuses without disrupting the other fundamental functions of the institutions,” wrote a retired physics professor commenting on a Chronicle of Higher Education report.

“Isn’t an institution of higher education’s primary function ... the education/learning and safety of its students? Anything that is considered distracting or obstructive of the primary goals has to be managed. If some students disagree, they are welcome to attend a different college,” wrote a commenter on a public-radio discussion of the case. Another declared: “I welcome the free speech zones. On some campuses in California, you cannot walk from a classroom to the library without being bombarded by propaganda.”

A campus, in this view, should be like a shopping mall. If you’re going about your business, you shouldn’t be bothered by pamphleteers and petitioners. You should be protected against sermons and political rants. Confining controversial speech to a small area is no different from telling the guy selling sunglasses that he’s got to rent a kiosk.

There are two problems with this line of thought: one legal, one educational.

Legally, a public university is a type of public forum -- not as open as a public sidewalk or park, perhaps, but nonetheless government property subject to the First Amendment. A state college campus is different from the purely private property of the Googleplex or a Walmart parking lot. To pass constitutional muster, therefore, any restrictions on speech have to be both content-neutral and “reasonable” to accomplish a narrow government purpose. The government can’t play favorites, and it must have a very good justification for any rules it imposes.

Saying hundreds of people can’t hold a noisy demonstration outside the library where students are studying for exams might qualify as reasonable. Forbidding protestors from crowding sidewalks so that people can’t get to class might also -- although even there, the recent Supreme Court case on abortion protests suggests a heavy burden of proof. But there’s no way the speech-zone restrictions at places at Citrus and elsewhere would make the cut.

But saying a single student can’t hand out copies of the Constitution or ask people to sign a petition without giving a week’s notice, getting a permit, or staying in a confined area simply isn’t reasonable. (A school might be able to make stricter rules for people outside the campus community of students, faculty and staff.) Advance-notice requirements are particularly burdensome, because they prevent students from reacting to events, such as controversial speakers or the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. “Even when it’s something long-planned,” said University of California at Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh in an interview, “it’s hard to see any justification for a permit requirement for one person leafleting.”

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-07-14/turning-college-into-a-no-thought-zone

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commented 2014-07-19 12:57:25 -0400 · Flag
J.C. writes:

the progressive set has become as omnipresent & oppresive, albeit w better haircuts, than the rigid conservatives who did not know what hit them or how to respond.
what message does the new counter-culture (ie; conservatives), bring to the silent legions yearning for wisdom, sanity & balance to this republic & who will be chosen to carry this message…nationally?