Did You Know? The Decline of Free Speech Zones

The term “free speech zone” can be misleading. While the name implies a policy that promotes free expression, free speech zones do the opposite. They confine political demonstrations to a small, often secluded, area on campus and typically require students to get advance permission to demonstrate. 

In Oregon, a pro-life group, Students for Life, filed a lawsuit against Chemeketa Community College in May to challenge the college’s free speech zone policy.

The college restricts outdoor speech to two small “free speech areas” and requires a two-week notice to use them. Students for Life claims that the policy violates their right to free speech and that the required notice prevents them from engaging in spontaneous political expression.

Even at schools that claim to have eliminated their free speech zone policies, though, colleges still restrict speech. In 2003, Western Illinois University said that it would eliminate its free speech area policy. However, when students protested to legalize marijuana in 2019, campus police told them to stop because they were outside the school’s free speech zone.

Thankfully, colleges have been cleaning up their act in recent years: free speech zones are on the decline. According to FIRE’s 2020 Spotlight on Speech Codes, only 8.3 percent of surveyed schools enforced free speech zone policies, down from 10.5 percent in 2019.

State legislatures have also acted against free speech zones. Seventeen states have passed legislation preventing free speech zone policies: Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Those annoying limitations on students exercising their Constitutional rights on campus may soon be a relic of the past.

Nicole Divers is a Martin Center intern and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.