McAuliffe signs law removing Virginia college ‘free speech zones’

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April 15, 2014

1:06 AM

Until recently, some Virginia colleges had restricted student demonstrations to “free speech zones,” which limited the places where students can openly demonstrate on campus. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-VA, signed a law April 7 limiting the existence of free speech zones and enhancing free expression on Virginia’s public college campuses.

The College does not use free speech zones and has been given a “green light” by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the highest rating for an institution’s promotion of free speech.

The law, otherwise known as HB 258, passed unanimously in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly. It effectively increases the freedom with which students may openly express themselves on Virginia campuses.

“Restricting student speech to tiny ‘free speech zones’ diminishes the quality of debate and discussion on campus by preventing expression from reaching its target audience,” the FIRE said in a statement.

FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn said the new law marks a positive change.

“One in six public colleges in the United States unjustly restricts student speech with free speech zones,” Cohn said. “Thanks to this new law, public institutions in Virginia will no longer be among them.”

The law states that public institutions of higher education cannot impose restrictions on the time, place and manner of student speech that is protected by the First Amendment and that occurs in the institution’s outdoor area. The law does allow for restrictions that are “reasonable” or “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.”

Marshall-Wythe School of Law Professor Timothy Zick said he believes that the new law is an important victory for students’ free speech rights.

“Public colleges and universities are centers for learning and exchange. Free speech zones and other restrictive policies can stifle debate and chill expression on campus. … By ensuring that speech in outdoor areas of campus is subject only to reasonable limits, the Commonwealth has taken an important step toward upholding First Amendment rights and values,” Zick said.

Zick said that the zones existed in the first place to give

If students at the College want to protest, they would need to do so in a small, specified location called a “free speech zone.” On April 7, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a law that changes that.

The law, otherwise known as HB 258, passed unanimously in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly and effectively increases the freedom with which students may openly express themselves on Virgnia campuses.  Under existing law, students are limited to demonstrate in designated “free speech zones.”

“Restricting student speech to tiny ‘free speech zones’ diminishes the quality of debate and discussion on campus by preventing expression from reaching its target audience,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) said.

“One in six public colleges in the United States unjustly restricts student speech with free speech zones,” FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn said, adding that “Thanks to this new law, public institutions in Virginia will no longer be among them.”

The law states that “Public institutions of higher education shall not impose restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech that (i) occurs in the outdoor areas of the institution’s campus and (ii) is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution” but the law does allow for restrictions that are “reasonable” or “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.”

William & Mary Law Professor Timothy Zick believes that the new law is an important victory for students’ free speech rights.

“Public colleges and universities are centers for learning and exchange. Free speech zones and other restrictive policies can stifle debate and chill expression on campus … By ensuring that speech in outdoor areas of campus is subject only to reasonable limits, the Commonwealth has taken an important step toward upholding First Amendment rights and values,” Professor Zick said.

Why then, would a college campus designate “free speech zones” in the first place? Professor Zick said that the zones existed to give administrators a sense of control over what happens on their campuses.

“By herding speakers into pens and zones, officials can keep better watch over them, control the movement of assemblies, and limit the size of protests and other events,” Zick said.

Former Student Assembly secretary of policy Trevor Parkes ’15 said he thinks the law will be especially important to a community as vocal and active as the College of William and Mary.

“I think this law is fantastic news for the College and for students,” Parkes said. “William and Mary is a community of diverse and dedicated people. … I’m sure it’ll give everyone the comfort of knowing they have a right to share their experiences and ideas.”

Zick added that although HB 258 may not abolish all free speech zones, it does mean that college restrictions on free speech will face higher scrutiny in the future.

“This does not necessarily mean that speech zoning is dead on all Virginia campuses,” Zick said. “However, it does mean that any restrictions on speech in outdoor campus areas must take specific account of important free speech and assembly concerns.”

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Will Emmons
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