Suppression is the goal of many 'free speech zones' 

Contained speech

click to enlarge Protesters at UCCS on Jan. 26 were asked to stay in a defined area. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Protesters at UCCS on Jan. 26 were asked to stay in a defined area.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

That, of course, has not prevented the government from trying to suppress or contain speech in the years since the 1791 adoption of the Bill of Rights. And one of the most popular tools for doing so is the ubiquitous "free speech zone" or "First Amendment zone." The areas, which are sometimes fenced off, are set up for protesters or others who want to express opinions.

Such zones are common on college campuses, where noise and crowds are viewed as disruptive; outside political conventions; or in other areas where protesters might be in the way — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set one up at the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, for instance. At times, protesters who have left free speech zones have been arrested, and there have been other complaints — that zones were too far away from the target of the action or were too small.

On Jan. 26, Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right editor for Breitbart News, spoke at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. UCCS set aside an area for protesters, but UCCS spokesperson Tom Hutton doesn't like to call that area a "free speech zone."

"The entire campus is a free speech zone," he says. He adds that UCCS tries to place restrictions on time and place — meaning protesters need to reserve space. There is a single area on campus that is always open for free speech activities. But, he says, students don't always stay within approved zones — they didn't on Jan. 26 — and he's never heard of anyone being punished for that.

"The fact that those folks didn't use it is not a problem," he says.

Colorado College, by the way, doesn't have free speech zones, spokesperson Leslie Weddell says, but asks the college community to be respectful and not disrupt college activities. "Uncensored speech — which does not include a right to harass, injure, or silence others — is essential in an academic community and will be vigorously defended," college policy states.

So where does the law stand on free speech zones? The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such restrictions on speech must be content neutral, narrowly drawn, serve a significant government interest and leave open other forms of communication.

While commenting on college campus free speech restrictions in an article for the Huffington Post, David L. Hudson Jr., Adjunct Professor of Law at Vanderbilt Law School and a First Amendment expert, wrote that, "While there are remnants of these policies [free speech zones] from the 1960s, they grew in number in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a way for administrators to deal with controversial expression."

And they haven't always worked out. "In a particularly egregious example," Hudson writes, "a student at Modesto Junior College in California named Robert Van Tuinen was prohibited from handing out copies of the United States Constitution on September 17, 2013 — the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution."

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, says that just the name "free speech zones" implies that there's a larger area where speech isn't free. And that's wrong.

"It's to set things up as if the normal reality is restricted speech," he says. "... It should be the other way around."

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