In the last five years, free speech zones have become a tool in campus administrators’ attempt to regulate free expression.
A September 2002 article in the National Law Journal said, a growing number of colleges and universities have “established speech-zone systems relegating protests, demonstrations and all other forms of student speech to a handful of places on campus.” SHSU has also adopted a “free speech zone policy.”
Free speech zones are areas of campus specifically designated as areas in which free speech and expression will not disrupt academic functions of the university.
At SHSU the free speech zone is the area around the fountain and mall area. This space can be used between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“If you are not in free speech area, you may be invited to leave campus,” said Frank Parker, dean of students.
According to the SHSU student guidelines, “Freedom of inquiry and discussion is basic and essential to intellectual development. However, these freedoms must be exercised in a manner that does not illegally derogate the rights of others or interfere with the academic programs and administrative processes of a component [the university].”
Parker said SHSU’s established free speech zone works to allow open expression on campus.
“The most protected right we have is freedom of expression which I think is rightly so,” Parker said. “However, free speech is not absolute.”
The state university guidelines state, “Any group or person, whether or not a student or employee, and whether or not invited by a registered student, faculty, or staff organization, may assemble and engage in free speech activities on the grounds of the campus.
However, the university may set “reasonable nondiscriminatory” rules as to time, place, and manner of such activities. The individual universities may prohibit such activities if it is determined, after proper inquiry, that the proposed speech constitutes a clear and present danger.
Clear and present danger is defined as any person or group who “within the past five years has incited violence resulting in the destruction of property at any public institution or has willfully caused the forcible disruption of regularly scheduled classes or other educational functions at any such institution.”
“The only restrictions the university can place on free speech is time, place and manner,” Parker said. “This is to avoid disturbing classrooms, studying or sleeping students. They do not even have to tell us what they are protesting or speaking about.”
SHSU policy says that a person who wishes to exercise their right to free expression is required to fill out a form 48 hours in advance.
“That is mainly so I can manage the area in case two people or groups want to express their right to free speech at the same time,” Parker said. “That has not happened in quite a while.”
While freedom of speech and assembly is encouraged, the university guidelines state “the law recognizes that there is no absolute right to assembly or to make or hear a speech at any time or place regardless of the circumstances, content of speech, purpose of assembly, or probable consequences of such meeting or speech.”
Parker said SHSU follows existing government regulations when it comes to free speech on campus.
“This is what the government says to do, so that is what we abide by,” Parker said.
Though the university has adopted the free speech zone policy, the rules and regulations at SHSU are more lenient than some other universities.
The University of Houston’s policy states students must register 10 days in advance for even minor protests. It also states that spontaneous demonstrations are relegated to only one area where amplified sound and signs mounted on sticks are prohibited.
At SHSU, the freedom of speech and expression can be exercised with little interference from university administration as long as demonstrations take place around the fountain or mall area. If the manner is not disruptive to academics and does not present a danger students and others may come to SHSU to speak their minds.