Free speech doesn't come in zones

Sessions: NFL protests are a big mistake
Sessions: NFL protests are a big mistake


    Sessions: NFL protests are a big mistake


Sessions: NFL protests are a big mistake 01:24

Story highlights

  • Andrea Tortora: Jeff Sessions' remarks at Georgetown highlighted the limitations being placed on free speech on university campuses
  • Some campuses have adopted "free speech zones," which will negatively effect the exchange of ideas, she writes

Andrea Tortora earned her undergraduate degree in journalism from Ohio University in 1995. While at OU, she was editor of the independent student newspaper, The Post. Tortora is a freelance writer and communications professional based in Peoria, Illinois. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)When educational institutions start narrowing their interpretation of the First Amendment, which empowers citizens to share their thoughts and opinions in public places (especially those funded by tax dollars), we should all be worried. Look no further than the Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday afternoon.

It's clear that the debate over free speech on campus is more than an academic or theoretical one. Before attorney general Jeff Sessions delivered his address (about free speech on college campuses) at Georgetown, students and faculty protested his appearance. More than 130 students said they were uninvited from attending the talk -- after registering through official channels and receiving a confirmation. One student told the Washington Post those students received emails telling them they had initially been invited to the lecture in error.
More than 30 faculty members released a statement condemning "the hypocrisy of Attorney General Sessions speaking about free speech."
    Faculty and students decried Sessions' role in an administration that just this weekend denounced NFL players who silently protested by taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem.
    Andrea Tortora
    Sessions was invited to campus by a center devoted to the Constitution, yet students and faculty were told by university officials to limit their protest to a designated "free speech zone" -- a practice Sessions actually spoke out against during his remarks.
    For me, the idea of zoning free speech is personal. When my alma mater of Ohio University, a public institution, recently unveiled what it calls a "Freedom of Expression" policy, I did a double take. Did I mention my major? Journalism. That's right, I learned about the First Amendment at the very institution that now is trying to quash free expression.
    In name, OU's interim policy is Orwellian. As it stands, the code severely restricts freedom of expression by effectively banning free speech within any campus building. It states:
    "Demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests, and similar assemblies are not permitted in the interior spaces of university buildings. This provision shall not limit the right of groups or individuals to reserve available facilities."
    The policy also allows the university to designate outdoor free speech zones as it sees fit. It's alarming how common this tactic of zoning free speech -- like it's a building code -- is becoming on our college campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education concludes that about 1 in 10 colleges and universities have zoned free speech.
    By making parts of a public university campus off limits for free speech, Ohio University and other schools restrict people -- especially students and faculty -- from exercising their rights to freedom of expression.
    I would be a completely different person today if the current policy had been in place when I was a student. I spent most of my time at Baker Center, where students, faculty and other groups used to congregate for demonstrations, because the student newspaper office is housed there.
    More times than I can count, I encountered other viewpoints, ideas and opinions so different from my own. Demonstrations were common inside and outside the building. Groups would pass out pamphlets or set up tables to inform others about their various causes or concerns. It's how a student like me, who was raised Catholic, ended up visiting and writing about the campus mosque. I believe from personal experience that such exposure is integral to the way young adults develop their beliefs or solidify their opinions.
    Let's be clear about what's happening now. People are scared, especially after what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. Ohio University administrators, like their peers at many other institutions outside of Athens, Ohio, want policies in place to protect students from violence that can happen at demonstrations.
    But this fear is yielding convoluted and troubling results. Clamping down on demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins, marches and protests in the way that Ohio University's policy outlines pushes us toward a very slippery slope. If allowed to remain, this policy could be devastatingly harmful to free speech rights on college campuses across the nation.
    On Ohio University's campus in February, 150 students, faculty and community members were assembling peaceably at Baker Center, protesting with a sit-in against President Trump's travel ban and demanding the university become a sanctuary campus. The university police chief ordered the group to leave or be arrested. In the early evening, 70 protestors were arrested and charged with criminal trespass, without disrupting the Baker Center's normal operating hours.
    And there was no violence.
    In March, a student and protest organizer was found not guilty and an Athens County Municipal Court judge dismissed charges against the other protestors.
    No other major protests have occurred on campus since then, which makes the banning of indoor demonstrations seem like an overreaction.
    While you can restrict a lot of things in a public building -- smoking, blocking of fire exits, obstructing operations -- it is arguable that you can restrict protest, which is a form of speech. And while the university may or may not be in violation of case law, we should still expect more from institutions paid for in part by public dollars.

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Curbing free speech rights is not the way to provide protection from unforeseen incidents that may occur in the current political climate. If we want top-notch universities to train tomorrow's leaders to uphold our national values, we need more free speech, not less.
    I am doubly concerned that this is happening on a campus with a long history of honoring freedom of expression and one where the College of Communications and the School of Journalism are named for and supported by the Scripps Howard Foundation, which annually honors those who champion the First Amendment.
    In his remarks at Georgetown, Sessions warned that college campuses were becoming "a shelter for fragile egos" -- while literally being shielded from questions posed by protestors relegated to a free speech zone outside. My greatest fear is the unknown that lurks at the end of this question: If students, our collective future and tomorrow's leaders, are unable to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly at a public university or pose questions to a speaker at a lecture, where does that leave us as a nation?
    An earlier version of this article characterized the organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), as "conservative-leaning" and cited outdated research on the prevalence of free speech zones on campus, which is now updated. The group, which receives significant funding from conservative donors, defines itself as a "proudly nonpartisan" organization that defends the free speech rights of students, faculty and campus speakers across a diversity of social and political perspectives. In addition, Ohio University administrators, senior director of communications services Carly Leatherwood and general counsel John Biancamano, responded to this article by saying that their policy on free expression is an interim policy that, while now in effect, is also under review during a comment period that closes the third week of October. Those administrators disagree with the author's characterization of the policy, which they say, in addition to the sections quoted in this piece, contains provisions to safeguard constitutionally protected speech while avoiding disruption of academic and research activities. FIRE, which evaluates university speech policies, gives the Ohio University interim policy a "green light" and the school an overall speech code rating of "yellow."