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Free speech on college campuses might not be as free as you may think


Free speech on college campuses might not be as free as you may think

WATCH  |  Free speech on college campuses might not be as free as you may think.

Historically, people have flocked to college campuses to learn more about the world around them and have looked at these places of higher education as a safe haven to exchange competing ideas or opinions. 

But free speech on public college and university campuses might not be as free as you may think.

Just last month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is an organization dedicated to defending free speech, filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles Pierce College in California on behalf of one of its students, Kevin Shaw. 

In November 2016, Shaw was told he couldn't hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution outside of Pierce College's free speech zone. A school administrator told Shaw he must fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone. 

Pierce College student Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit against his school for limiting free speech to certain zones. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Bowery/FIRE)

Shaw's lawsuit challenges the college and the Los Angeles Community College District's policies restricting students' free speech to certain zones. But Shaw's situation isn't unique to his school. 

Recently, universities began limiting student protests and demonstrations to certain areas of campus known as free speech zones. Free speech zones are meant to prevent activism from disrupting the primary function of the university's primary function: learning.

But according to a 2002 article from the First Amendment Center, several universities have argued that these policies are not unconstitutional because they are "content-neutral," meaning the restrictions aren't on the content of the speech, but rather on the location in which it takes place.

The idea of free speech zones is rooted in the 60s when universities were a hotbed for social activism and students were devoted to opposing the Vietnam War. 

In the 80s and 90s universities began enacting speech codes, which as the First Amendment Center explains, were designed to "strike a balance between expression and community order." 

These codes, unlike free speech zones, specifically limit certain types of offensive or harassing speech.

Many of these codes are referred to as anti-harassment policies and were originally introduced on university campuses to address harassment aimed at the LGBTQ community and certain ethnic groups. 

Although the overall intent of these speech codes was well meaning, David Hudson a First Amendment expert at Vanderbilt University explained to the Huffington Post that many of these laws were too broad or vague -- meaning some infringed upon students' rights. 

FIRE has taken aim at public colleges and universities with policies that limit free speech by creating a database rating schools. 

A red light rating means the college or university has at least one policy that "substantially restricts" freedom of speech, whereas a green light rating signals that the schools' policies aren't restrictive. 

Click here to look up your school's rating

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Tuesday during the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice’s hearing that many colleges and universities began to re-evaluate their policies after the committee send a letter to those with a red light rating from FIRE. 

"FIRE reported last year that only 45.8 percent of the public schools surveyed received a 'red light' rating," Goodlatte said. "This year, the number has dropped to 33.9 percent. My hope is that the number will soon reach zero."

First Amendment Protections on Public College and University Campuses EventID=105828

WATCH  | Here's the full hearing regarding First Amendment protections on public college and university campuses

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