First Amendment: On college campuses, free speech zoned out

2013-10-06T09:00:00Z 2013-10-06T09:08:10Z First Amendment: On college campuses, free speech zoned out
October 06, 2013 9:00 am

Robert Van Tuinen’s run-in with campus police would be a funny story — if it weren’t such a disturbing example of how freedom of speech is under assault on many American college and university campuses.

As reported in The Daily Caller and elsewhere, Van Tuinen, a student at Modesto Junior College in California, was stopped from handing out copies of the Constitution on Sept. 17 — the 226th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. College officials informed Van Tuinen that he could get permission to distribute the Constitution, but only if he pre-registered for time in the “free speech zone” — a tiny concrete slab big enough for two people. Looking over the calendar, an administrator told Van Tuinen that she has “two people on campus right now, so you’d have to wait until either the 20th, 27th, or you can go into October.”

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Virtually everything about the Modesto Junior College “free speech” policy is wrongheaded and unconstitutional. As Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education  explains, the college “sent police to enforce an unconstitutional rule, said that students could not freely distribute literature, placed a waiting period on free speech, produced an artificial scarcity of room for free speech with a tiny ‘free speech area,’ and limited the number of speakers on campus to two at a time.”

Outrageous, yes, but sadly all too common: According to research conducted by FIRE, one in six of the nation’s 400 top colleges and universities currently have “free speech zones,” Orwellian doublespeak for “restrict speech zones.” (To find a campus “free speech zone” near you, visit

When challenged, colleges sometimes back down — or lose in court. In 2012, for example, a federal judge ruled that the University of Cincinnati’s “free speech zone” violated the First Amendment. But many policies limiting free speech on campus remain in force as instruments for chilling and limiting freedom of expression at scores of schools nationwide.

Why have so many American institutions of higher learning, reputed bastions of intellectual freedom, retreated into fear of freedom? Are school officials afraid of debate and dissent? Are they trying to keep people (outside the zone) from hearing words that may offend someone? Whatever the bureaucratic anxieties that underlie speech restrictions on campus, “free speech zones” send the message to students that freedom of speech is a privilege doled out by administrators — not a fundamental human right.

Robert Van Tuinen’s classmates appear to have gotten the message. According to Van Tuinen, instead of rallying to his cause, student government leaders criticized him for besmirching the name of the college. I encountered a similar attitude first-hand on a recent visit to a major university. When I asked the newly elected student body president what he planned to do in office, he excitedly described his proposal to establish a “free speech zone” on campus.

When I asked why, he explained that students need a place to speak out for what they believe. When I suggested that in the land of the free, the entire campus should be a “free speech zone,” he just stared at me as though I were speaking gibberish.

One can only hope that Robert Van Tuinen’s simple act of civil disobedience inspires other like-minded students to challenge unconstitutional regulations on free speech at public colleges and universities across America. They should take a page from Van Tuinen’s playbook and hand out copies of the Bill of Rights outside the zone — and challenge school officials to explain why students are barred from exercising their right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at chaynes@freedomforum. org.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(4) Comments

  1. CLG4
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    CLG4 - October 12, 2013 8:37 am
    Repub you are doing a pretty good job of vilifying youself. First you need to reread the article it says nothing of 2nd amendment rights, in you zealous attempt to attack you have mixed up the 1st and second amendments, I think you are in bad need of a copy of the bill of rights and our Constitution. Oh and please try to read them when you are not self medicated and imagining demons to vilify.
  2. exrepub
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    exrepub - October 12, 2013 4:10 am
    Heard of the internet? Anyone that would believe this is all to the story has a mental problem. Period. Noone is restricting your free speech, your 2nd amendment rights. I don't know the bill but in Virginia I remember when Palin was spewing in Virginia Obama was signing legislation to make it easier to carry guns there. And most of the time when you got your underwear in a bundle it was because the info was taken out of context and rearranged so that Obama would sound like the bad guy. He should be your role model. Did you ever think of that? But of course you wouldn't want to treat anyone with civility and dignity and any of your brain power to educate yourself. It totally cracks me up and dismays me what some ignorant Americans are willing to believe because the wrong man somehow managed to get elected to president and he shouldn't have. Well if he did the harm to our country that George Bush did and the harm to our country that Mitt would have I would tend to agree. If you guys would only have woke up to see what Mitt really stood for and where he learned to do business and how he manipulated his records including where he lived for tax purposes and what he hid from the tax officials so he didn't have to pay taxes you might be a little more on the ball. At least he didn't have an atheist standing by him in the White House when he hired a federal reserve chairman. I haven't checked out the new nominee for that job but I certainly hope she is not an atheist. While you guys are spouting your Christian values you are leaving out a few. And I don't know how but suddenly the atheists are creeping into your party. I don't care for muslims and I have heard where they are out to destroy us. They may be but I don't recall Hitler being a muslim. The Japanese weren't muslims. Do you? And at least they believe in God of some sort. And besides why would you want to say a Christian is a muslim anyone. I think God has some behaviors he likes for Christians and some of you just aren't doing them. Like telling the truth, respecting others, showing some dignity. Right now I think the only thing we have to fear in this country is how far the teaparty will take us down the wrong path. When that is resolved, then we can deal with our other problems. Think of this why is it necessary to provide propaganda and lies and bullying to get your way? All you have to do is flip some channels on tv and check out when differences appear as to who is telling the truh and it all should be quite clear. However, when you refuse to do that it is clear you don't want to know the truth you just want to hear the propaganda so it makes you feel better. But remember it still doesn't make it true. I will be glad when Obamas term is done so the republicans can find their next person they want to villify. We have had too many years of this nonsense already.
  3. yankee
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    yankee - October 06, 2013 1:44 pm
    The Constitution was written by our Founding Fathers!
    They founded America in 1776!
    The Book of Mormon was translated in 1830!
    Were our Founding Fathers Mormons?
    See the difference?
    Does Jerry Falwell's LIBERTY "COLLEGE"?
  4. 2tired
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    2tired - October 06, 2013 9:36 am
    I cannot believe this is now disturbing people. If you never knew this was coming you’re a fool. 1st amendment of our constitution is free speech, 2nd amendment is right to bear arms. They have been taking away our 2nd amendment over the years now they are working on the first, next is the 4th. If people do not wake up our kids and grandkids will be living under a total controlled government with no rights. Our Illinois senator wants to decide who is a reporter and who is not. This way if a citizen questions anything our government is doing they can quite this person. My question is what gives them the right to take away our rights given to us by the founders other than we all became mindless sheep.
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