- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

A policy at West Virginia University that limits free-speech protections to two tiny designated areas on campus has come under attack by civil libertarians who say the policy violates First Amendment rights.
The policy prohibits students from passing out pamphlets, holding protests or engaging in any other type of political debate almost anywhere on campus, except in two areas designated as "free-speech zones." Those students who violate the policy can face several disciplinary actions, including explusion.
"WVU is boxing in free speech," said Matthew Poe, a 20-year-old political science and philosophy major. "It's like they are afraid of dissent, and that makes them look foolish in the long run."
Civil libertarians and some educators argue that the policy at WVU and ones like it at other colleges and universities across the country show the difficulty of telling students and faculty when and where public commentary can take place on campus.
Critics of the policies contend that by limiting free speech, universities are sending a message that speech should be feared, regulated and monitored at all times a message they say is contrary to the foundations of a free society and the ideals of higher education.
One group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, sent a letter to WVU President David C. Hardesty Jr., urging his administration to revoke the policy because the group argues the guidelines violate the Bill of Rights.
"These absurdly named 'free-speech zones' have no place at the free institutions of a free society," said Alan Charles Kors, FIRE's president. "A public university does not have the authority to repeal the Bill of Rights."
As a result, university officials have asked an ad hoc committee of the school's Faculty Senate to revise the current policy. A draft of the revised policy will be made public April 1.
The Faculty Senate can make only recommendations to policies, but Mr. Hardesty can accept, reject or modify the senate's proposals, said Robert Griffith, a chemistry professor and chairman of the WVU's ad hoc committee.
Mr. Griffith declined to discuss the proposals but did say there is hardly any opposition to changing the current policy. "Everyone is pretty much in agreement on this," he said.
Each of the two free-speech zones at WVU is the size of a small classroom. The zones are in front of and behind the university's student union building locations that students and professors claim are too far from that building, which hosts some of the school's most politically charged events. WVU has three campuses that are about four miles away from one another, and only one campus has the free-speech zones.
Free-speech zones are a relatively recent campus phenomenon, and there is no estimate of how many institutions have adopted such policies, said Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit organization in Washington that represents 1,800 colleges and universities.
Several schools that have tried to enforce such policies have either abandoned or revised them:
Administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater last month rescinded the school's "free speech area" policy after students and faculty members criticized it.
Officials at New Mexico State University last year adopted a new policy that clarifies free-speech rights after settling a lawsuit brought two years ago by a student who claimed the university's free speech zone policy restricted him from expressing his views.
Educators at University of South Florida in Tampa abandoned their "speaker area" policy in 1999 after students and faculty called it controversial.
Mr. Steinbach said campuses may be creating free-speech zones for security purposes. "Security is an issue on campuses now, and administrators are trying to come up with lawful and reasonable means to control, to enforce it," he said.
Although such policies may frustrate students, Mr. Steinbach said, universities like WVU are treating their students the same way a body of government would treat a group of people who want to hold an event like a parade in a city or town.
"These students aren't being put in a cheese box," he said. "No one is being precluded from speaking their mind."


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