University needs to reevaluate free speech zones

In an editorial piece I wrote recently, I suggested that Georgia State should reevaluate the placement of its free speech zones on campus, namely calling for the elimination of the Library Plaza and Unity Plaza areas.

Since then, we’ve received a significant amount of responses both praising and condemning the idea.  It is certainly a sensitive subject, and one that we at The Signal are willing to hear argued by both sides.

As the initiator of the debate, I do feel it’s my responsibility to delve more into the rationale behind reevaluating the free speech zones on our campus.

First off, as a Political Science/Pre-Law major who has spent most of my course time in my major in Constitutional law, I am aware of the implications of my suggestion.  Removing the free speech zones could be seen by some as a violation of the First Amendment.

Arguably, this is true.

Georgia State University is, of course, a public university, and as such, we as an institution have certain legal obligations that would not apply to a private institution.  Among those obligations is a right for all voices to be heard on our campus, regardless of whether or not they are popular opinions.

Based on the response on the plaza during the week where the protestors from PinPoint Evangelism were on our campus, I believe it’s reasonable to state that their opinions were far from popular.  According to our obligations as a public institution, though, we had no choice but to let them on our campus.

That being said, there are university regulations that limit where off-campus protestors can physically go.  At least one protestor was removed from campus for entering a classroom building, for example.   The whole rationale behind having free speech zones is to limit the presence of individuals who are not members of the Georgia State community from disrupting the educational atmosphere that is the mission of Georgia State University.

And here’s where we get into trouble.

As it stands right now, Georgia State currently has over 30,000 students enrolled this semester.  It’s a new record for the university, and one that jumped significantly from previous years.

Simultaneously, there has been little to no growth in the actual size of the institution in years in available classes.  This will change in the next few years, with the opening of the Petit Science Center and the acquisition of the SunTrust bank building, but as it stands now, we’re cramming more students into our already limited, landlocked space.

The majority of the main classes on our campus occur in four buildings – Sparks Hall, Kell Hall, General Classroom Building, and Classroom South.  All four of these buildings are connected by Library Plaza.  Typically, between classes, the plaza is crammed with students moving between buildings to their next classes, or towards either Pullen Library or the Student/University Center complex across Courtland Street.

In recent years, there has been a significant amount of controversy surrounding what is commonly known as “Plaza Time,” or the time between 12:15 and 1:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays where student groups or campus departments typically put on productions.  The time is limited to the specific 45 minutes because during this time, there are few classes actually occurring in the buildings surrounding the plaza.

Otherwise, during the day Monday-Friday, any group wishing to be in this space must reserve the space, and must maintain a reasonable level of sound out of respect to the classes occurring.

What happened on the plaza a few weeks ago was anything but silent.

Between the levels of noise brought by the protestors themselves and the students counterprotesting, many students reported disruptions in their classes, particularly in classrooms surrounding the plaza.

Officers were in the vicinity of the protests, in part to ensure that the protests did not become violent in nature, but their presence did little (if nothing) to stop the noise.

The problem isn’t restricted to this one incident, really, either.  Over the past few years alone, the campus has been visited from groups advocating anything from overturning abortion rights to overthrowing former President George W. Bush.  While there are bound to be students who agree or disagree with any of these platforms, it shouldn’t be an issue that infringes on the right to an uninterrupted education, which is ultimately the reason for this university’s very existence.

I’m not calling for the removal of all free speech zones, both as a practical matter and as a legitimate belief in the Constitutional right to freedom of speech.  But there is a tricky gray area that exists in our current situation.

At this point, I’m pulling out what is admittedly a clichéd example of the limitations of freedom of speech.  The example goes: you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  The rationale behind it is that your right to say “fire” is trumped by the general welfare of the other patrons of the theater, who would likely start to create a panic of some sort in their attempts to exit the building.

With the current placement of free speech zones on our campus, we are placing ourselves at some risk of a similar situation.  The protestors from a few weeks ago yelled “fire,” and a large number of students responded by creating a firestorm.  While on a personal level, I’m glad that there was a response from students that showed solidarity among different groups, I cannot get past the feeling that if we’re not careful as a university, something could legitimately go wrong the next time.

One other fact worth mentioning is that, in some of the prior cases of controversial groups or causes coming on our campus, they were brought in by student organizations as part of their particular mission.  In these cases, there’s a little more freedom for the groups to present their message, because the groups sponsoring them have their own set of guidelines to abide by for the university.

The group that came a few weeks ago, though, was not one of them.  There is no known affiliation between PinPoint Evangelism and any chartered student organization on campus.  Outside of a particular framework provided by the university, there was no cause for filtering from this group.

Ultimately, though, while we are obligated to let protestors on our campus regardless of cause for promotion, we don’t have to let them go everywhere.  I urge university administrators to at the very least consider reevaluating the locations of our free speech zones on campus.  By all means, they will still exist in some form, but removing at the very least the Library Plaza location from the list of where simply anyone, regardless of affiliation, can go needs to be considered for the safety and well-being of our ever-expanding student population.

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