The University of Georgia is being sued by Alliance Defending Freedom over its policy of limiting student demonstrations and protests to the hours between 8 AM and 9 PM inside two “free speech zones.” The two areas, on the Tate and Memorial Hall Plazas, make up less then one percent of the Athens campus.
According to a news item posted on Friday by Campus Reform, the suit comes after the UGA chapter of Young Americans for Liberty was prohibited from displaying a national debt clock in a campus location other than the two plazas, despite other groups being able to express themselves outside of the defined zones. The incident took place back in 2011.
Blake Seitz, editor of the UGA student publication The Arch Conservative, told Peach Pundit the restrictions imposed by the college administration limit the free speech rights of students:
College campuses are usually thought of as forums where ideas can be aired, however controversial. For example, the only place left in England where individuals can say anything without fear of prosecution is the Union building at Oxford. The United States has a better record of protecting unpopular speech (cf. Brandenburg v. Ohio), but ironically free speech is most restricted at its public college and universities.
Students should be free to speak and organize as they please so long as they aren’t engaging in sedition or physically disrupting classes — high bars to clear for the censor. The current policy at UGA goes much further by restricting speech to two sites on campus. Those who wish to use the sites must file for the school’s approval in advance. Admirably, the administration has always been quick to grant approval, but the very fact that approval is necessary conflicts with the spirit of free speech. Demonstrations outside of the “free speech zones” are policed inconsistently: Young Americans for Liberty was forced to pack up its debt clock display, but other political groups have protested without reprimand.
Legal challenges to other schools’ free speech zone policies have been successful. Here in Georgia, ADF won a similar case filed in 2006 on behalf of Georgia Tech students Orit Sklar and Ruth Malhotra, alleging the two were subject to religious discrimination. Last month, the Virginia Community College System agreed to suspend its speech zone policy after a lawsuit was filed by a student who was forbidden to preach in an open area on the campus of Thomas Nelson Community College.
Does the ADF have a chance of prevailing at UGA? Seitz thinks so, pointing out a previous court decision. “The 2004 district court ruling in Roberts v. Haragan gives us an idea of what to expect from the case filed by YAL and ADF last week: ‘[T]o the extent [that a] campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the University’s students, irrespective of whether the University has so designated them.’”
Of course, even if the ultimate result of the lawsuit is an expansion of where and when students can express themselves on campus, the censorship of conservative thought on campus is still an open question.