October 05, 2004
"Free speech zone" knocked down at Texas Tech

Another victory for free speech in Lubbock.

In a major decision affecting the way public universities allow public speech, U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings knocked down a Texas Tech policy that establishes free-speech zones.

Cummings ruled Thursday partially in favor of Tech School of Law graduate Jason W. Roberts, who contended that the university violated his First Amendment rights by requiring him to move a speech he planned into a free-speech zone.

The ruling declared that a public institution designating free speech exclusively to such zones is unconstitutional.

The University of Houston was similarly smacked down two years ago.

The impact of the judgment remains in question. Cummings' direct dialogue as outlined in the decision will definitely affect campuses with designated free-speech zones, although he stopped short of ruling that Tech violated Roberts' rights.

"The bottom line remains that the university never ultimately denied him permission to engage in constitutionally protected speech on campus," Cummings said in a lengthy decision.

Indeed, although victory solidified in the hands of free-speech advocates, Tech remained absolved.

The plaintiffs expected it that way.

In May 2003, Roberts applied for a permit to make a speech on Tech's grounds through the Center for Campus Life. He planned to express his views against homosexuality, according to his lawsuit. When that application was rejected, Tech officials actually told Roberts he could carry his speech just 20 feet away in the free-speech zone.

"The use of university grounds, as stated in the university policy, is encouraged for activities, which are intended to serve or benefit the entire university community," said Mary Donahue, assistant director of the Center for Campus Life, in a May 29, 2003, e-mail to Roberts rejecting his specific request. "It is the view of the committee that your request is the expression of a personal belief and thus, is something more appropriate for the free-speech area."

That did not sit well with Roberts. He filed a complaint against Donald R. Haragan, then Tech's president, and the school's board of regents. Although both sides worked to come to a consensus which resulted in Tech developing an interim policy on the free-speech zone the new decision places an injunction against practicing the policy. Tech officials did not return calls or were unavailable for comment all day Friday.

First and foremost, as long as one isn't disturbing the peace or harassing passersby, the whole country is a free speech zone as far as I'm concerned. I hope that these two rulings will help banish the concept of "free speech zone" from the public consciousness.

Secondly, it looks like this ruling is stronger than the UH one. In that case, the complainants had been restricted to a less-heavily trafficked area of the campus. Here, the "zone" was 20 feet away from where the plaintiff wanted to be. Without knowing the exact layout of the area, I don't think it would be too hard to make a case that 20 feet doesn't impose an unreasonable barrier. Given that the judge saw otherwise, that seems to me a pretty clear message that universities (and hopefully other public institutions) need to rethink their policies.

Lastly, I obviously don't agree at all with what Mr. Roberts had to say. But you can't win a battle of ideas by suppression. Let him have his say so we can all see it for what it is. Ultimately, I think that's for the best.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 05, 2004 to Legal matters | TrackBack

I'm a free-speech militant. These zones are ludicrous.

Posted by: TP on October 5, 2004 12:18 PM

Woo-hoo! I'll be sure to check in on the UT paper to see when we'll get our shot. Free speech zones were a constant hastle when I was a student there a few years back. I don't think that you have to much care for protesting to recognize that these zones are shams.

Posted by: Kriston on October 5, 2004 12:25 PM

Lastly, I obviously don't agree at all with what Mr. Roberts had to say. But you can't win a battle of ideas by suppression. Let him have his say so we can all see it for what it is. Ultimately, I think that's for the best.


I cringe when I see some so-called "civil libertarians," usually (but not always) with a leftward bent, who scream for the need for free speech until their oxen are being gored, at which point they feel the need to "restrain" free expression. I have little use for such hypocrisy.

And as much as these hypocrites often align themselves with groups like the ACLU, they should remember that the ACLU once sued for the free-speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan. Talk about repugnant!

If you read the Federalist Papers, it's blatantly obvious that the First Amendment wasn't meant to only protect inoffensive speech; inoffensive speech doesn't NEED protection. It's exactly the controversial and the shocking which NEEDS the protection, and as long as it doesn't clearly start a riot or public panic, it must be protected *absolutely*. I don't care whether you're Fred Phelps or his polar opposite.

Posted by: Tim on October 5, 2004 12:29 PM

Just to add, I wanted to throw this quote out, one of my favorites on the matter, one I sometimes use in my e-mail signature, from former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980): "Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle and impure butter. The audience that hissed yesterday may applaud today, even for the same performance."

Posted by: Tim on October 5, 2004 12:31 PM