The recent controversy over the "free speech zone" on the Southern Oregon University campus offers an opportunity to reflect on what the First Amendment means. College campuses are supposed to be bastions of free expression, but increasingly, administrators seem to think controlling student expression is a good idea.
The initial news story involved a group of students who were handing out copies of the Constitution near SOU residence halls and asking students to sign a petition protesting the university's "free speech zone," an area near Stevenson Union where protesters are asked to gather. University safety officers asked the students to move to the zone. They refused, but were not detained or disciplined.
The incident drew attention from national news organizations, including Fox News and United Press International. That may have been because the group is affiliated with Students for Concealed Carry, a national organization that advocates allowing students with concealed handgun licenses to carry guns on college campuses. Oregon University System rules prohibit firearms.
This incident, however, had nothing to do with guns beyond the affiliation of the students involved. It was about the free speech zone.
University officials later explained that the free speech zone is a Stevenson Union guideline, not a university policy. It was developed in 2003 to deal with protests of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
If the zone is not a campuswide policy, officials had no business telling students they could not express themselves in another part of the campus. But the Stevenson Union zone is questionable, as well. To their credit, SOU officials say they want to revisit the rules to avoid trampling free speech rights.
According to the SOU website: "The Southern Oregon University Free Speech Zone is located at the Stevenson Union main courtyard only, located outside near the bookstore entrance. Individuals and groups, whether they are affiliated with SOU or not, are free to express ideas in this space as long as that expression falls within legal limits and does not interfere with the SOU educational process."
Certainly, the First Amendment doesn't give protesters the right to disrupt classes, or to break the law by committing vandalism or acts of violence.
It's true that the courts have allowed so-called "time, place and manner" restrictions on speech, as long as they are not related to the content of the speech and serve a compelling governmental interest. It's also true that the courts have consistently struck down "free speech zones" on college campuses as unconstitutional.
It appears SOU officials may realize that, given that they have invited members of the student group, some of them student body officers, to help draft a new policy. That policy should uphold the distinctly American tradition of free expression in public places, especially public universities.
The students should bring along enough copies of the Constitution for everyone.