Practicing free speech on campus is a First Amendment right, but the means and location have become an issue.
According to firstamendmentcenter.org, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, students enrolled in public universities were heavily involved in campaigning and protesting issues such as the Vietnam War.
Later, in the 1980s and ‘90s, “free speech zones” were created on campuses because of the students vocalizing their opinions, specifically on racism and sex, more aggressively.
Initially, universities were able to downplay any complaints that arose regarding free speech zones by stating that the zones were content-neutral, meaning that any form of free speech could be practiced as long as it was limited to the designated area.
Some universities also said that the institution of free speech zones were to help “prevent student activism from disturbing the primary function of a university — the teaching of students in classrooms,” according to firstamendmentcenter.org.
Today, the free speech zones on campuses are stirring up complaints from those who believe that containing free speech in one area is not free speech at all.
Troy University has had problems, specifically lawsuits and censorship issues, with the school’s free speech policy in the past.
In 1967, Gary Clinton Dickey, a Troy alumnus and former news editor for the Tropolitan, was expelled from the university after writing a controversial article supporting a University of Alabama president known for supporting the publication of student materials that supported racial equality.
In 2005, Blake Dews, an art student at the time, sued the university, claiming that Troy suppressed his freedom of speech and expression when the school removed 3 photographs from his presentation for a class assignment. The photographs were parts of an exhibit at the university that was opened in the fall of 2003. Links to articles concerning this lawsuit can be found on The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s website.
FIRE is an organization that has highlighted Troy’s speech policy. The organization’s goal is to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.”
FIRE has created a database, called the Spotlight Speech Codes Database, which ranks universities and colleges across the nation according to how severe the school’s speech codes infringes on the rights of the students. Troy University is ranked by FIRE as one of the worst free speech colleges in the nation.
According to FIRE, Troy University is a “red light” university, meaning that students are not fully allowed to express their opinion without the threat of expulsion. The organization cites such policies as Troy’s Technology Use Policy and Standards of Conduct.
Jeremiah Baky, a sophomore political science major from Coden and the Alabama Campus Coordinator for Students for Liberty (a group that has worked with FIRE in the past regarding Troy’s speech policy), said that the creation of a free speech zone goes against the rights of students given in the First Amendment.
“The free speech zone greatly infringes on students’ First Amendment rights to freedoms of speech, expression and petition,” Baky said. “The cons [to having a free speech zone on campus] are not reaching your desired audience, having only a select group of students pass by, and having your rights to free speech on all areas of campus suspended and restricted to a select small area.”
The Oracle states, “Troy University is committed to protecting the freedom of speech for students, faculty, and staff, and will not infringe on speech that may be considered to be an unpopular or inconvenient expression of ideas. In order to accommodate this commitment to free speech, the University has designated the social quad beside the Trojan Center as the area for free speech.”
The social quad is located behind Bibb Graves. Herbert Reeves, dean of student services, said that the area has been a “free speech zone” for several years.
“It’s a continuation of what’s been back there for years,” Reeves said. “Originally it was the amphitheater in that area and that was designated as the free speech area. It’s been that way since before I was in this role.”
One reason the social quad is designated as the free-speech area is because it is near the student center, making it a highly traveled spot on campus.
“The intent for that quad is really migration,” Reeves said. “We would like to start migrating student groups and activities (to that area) as the people come out of the student center. And we’ve told a lot of groups that they’ve got to do stuff out there instead of doing it on the main quad.”
Luann Knight, community director for housing and residential life, said that there are practical reasons for limiting student activity and free speech to that area, such as preventing the possible disruption of class or students trying to get to class.
“If it’s a departmental event or it’s after 5 p.m., it can be on the Bibb quad,” Knight said, “We set these rules for all organizations because we just don’t want events disturbing classes.”
Faculty members, specifically teachers, seem to be allowed more room for free speech, even though they have slight restrictions placed on them.
The Troy University employee handbook defines academic freedom as “the right of members of the academic community freely to study, discuss, investigate, teach, conduct research, publish, or administer as appropriate to their respective roles and responsibilities.”
However, teachers are also advised, in the handbook, to be wary of outside ideas or material that do not pertain to the subject being taught entering the class. “The teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his/her subject, but he or she should be careful to present the various scholarly views related to the subject and to avoid introducing into his/her teaching controversial or other matter which has no direct relation to his/her subject. The teacher is entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results there from, subject to the adequate performance of other academic duties.”
The handbook states that faculty are an image of Troy University, which leads to the slight restrictions in the classrooms.
Richard Ledet, an assistant professor in the department of political science, said that while free speech is a part of a person’s individual rights, there are logical reasons to having guidelines in place.
“It is important to discuss and express varying opinions and ideas in a responsible way. I could not run into a crowded theater and yell ‘fire’ without expecting some type of consequence. With free speech comes responsibility, in order to avoid anarchy,” Ledet said.
Ledet also said that it is the responsibility of the university to provide a safe environment in which students can express ideas and practice free speech.