College students across the nation consistently have their voices silenced by restrictive university speech codes. Recently, there has been numerous cases where college administrations have violated First Amendment rights of students by punishing them for controversial speech, or restricting students speech by confining them to small designated areas of campus called “free speech zones.”
Utah is not immune to this trend. Just a few years ago, Dixie State University was sued by three of its students who had tried to obtain approval to post flyers that criticized Che Guevara and former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
DSU denied the student’s’ request citing policies that do not permit students to “disparage” or “mock” any individual, the students filed a lawsuit claiming the policy was an infringement on their constitutional free speech rights and should be changed. Utah courts agreed, and DSU was obligated to pay a $50,000 settlement fee and change its speech policies.
Another disturbing case recently came to light at Utah Valley University. The dean of students recently advised professors to report their students to the Behavior Assessment Team if the student’s language is thought to be too inappropriate, loud, or argumentative. This is a completely subjective list that could be easily misconstrued.
UVU professors were given a list of ways to deal with such students who they determine are violating these standards; the solutions “range from ‘supportive gestures’ to calling 911.” This is a problematic and potentially illegal approach to speech that may be constitutionally protected, despite conflicting university policy.
Outside of Utah, students across the nation continue to suffer from harsh speech restrictions. Some universities have barred students from passing out copies of the United States Constitution or have prevented students from peacefully inviting others to pray. Some universities prohibit individuals from using their voices by restricting their speech to tiny “free speech zones” which are commonly placed in an isolated and inconvenient area of campus.
Just like the case at DSU, situations like these have gained national attention, sparking important debates about the constitutionality of anti-speech campus policies. Can public entities, such as public universities, legally place arbitrary restrictions on speech?
This question is still being considered and fought over in courts across America. In Ohio, a Young Americans for Liberty club filed a successful legal challenge to their school’s policy after school officials banned them from hosting events, such as tabling, outside of the mandated speech zone. Judge Timothy S. Brown ruled that “the University’s location requirements unconstitutionally burden their right to free speech” — setting up precedent that should apply to many more universities.
These legal cases point towards a common trend where universities only respond with change to their speech policies when mandated. There have been numerous other cases of college campuses changing their policies due to students who file lawsuits: Blinn College in Texas, Grand Valley State University in Michigan, University of Hawaii, Citrus College in California, Iowa State University, and more.
College is a place that should foster open and honest discourse for a free exchange of thoughts and ideas, the Shapiro event at the University of Utah being an example. They are among the few places on earth that provide an academic platform for adults to discuss controversial ideas with a diverse group of scholars. Anti-speech policies transform these places into so-called “safe spaces” in which the status quo is ruthlessly required by bureaucrats.
Students can grow tremendously when their beliefs and ideas are challenged and they’re encouraged to consider differing perspectives. When colleges restrict speech on campus it results in a disturbing consequence of arbitrary limits placed on learning. This is the exact opposite of what a college should be striving for—especially at taxpayer subsidized institutions.
Instead of waiting for our institutions of higher learning to violate the First Amendment and subsequently be taken to court for it, the law should reflect each student’s existing right to speech. Utah House Bill 54 banned free speech zones, but the law should go further to ban any restrictive speech codes at public colleges. Currently, there are no state laws protecting different forms of speech within the classroom, such as “loud” or “argumentative” speech, as UVU has defined. To safeguard students and their right to freely express themselves on all areas of campus without the threat of a punishment, clarity is needed.
Utah has the opportunity to be a national leader by stepping up to protect our students from constitutional violations and the legislature has the ability to take large strides forward.
Fiorella Vasquez is the president of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at the University of Utah