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Freedom of Speech in America

“These absurdly named ‘Free Speech Zones’ have no place at the free institutions of a free society. A public university does not have the authority to repeal the Bill of Rights.?

Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE
Since the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, to answer the original Constitution’s lack of protection over civil liberties, free speech has never been an “absolute? right, but given to endless restrictions and constraints. The earliest restrictions came from the Alien and Sedition acts, passed in 1798 under the threat of war with France, which carried out the deportation of foreigners who voiced anti-government sentiment, and prohibited such views from being expressed in publications.

In 1918, in response to the Red Scare, the very similar Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed, making “disloyal? or “abusive? criticism of the government illegal, and prompting the US Postal Service to confiscate anti-war and anti-draft propaganda from several organizations. During the McCarthy period, the blacklist ruined entire lives and careers, under the guise of protecting national security. Yet these restrictions are not isolated in history, and even now, we find ourselves under a similar yoke of civil repression.


Today, America is repeating a similar fate with the so-called “War on Terror.? American citizens are giving up their civil liberties left and right for some misplaced sense of “national security,? in fear of the largely fictional, propaganda-fueled, seemingly “ever-present? phantom of terrorism, which still has many Americans absolutely terrified of air travel and staying in large cities.

The disturbing trend of so-called “free speech zones? at rallies and events for President Bush is one symptom of such a threat to civil liberties. Anyone carrying a sign that espouses slogans critical of Bush’s policies is corralled into a small, restricted area, far from the main event or any media coverage. To the American public, watching from the comfort of their living rooms, the existence of such a large amount of anti-Bush sentiment is completely invisible.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued on the behalf of activists such as Brett Bursey, who was arrested for refusing to take his protest sign reading “No Blood for Oil? to a zone a half-mile away from the airport where the president was speaking, and fined $500. Bursey was lucky – the maximum penalty for such a transgression is 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.


Perhaps something that hits closer to home, however, is the restrictions on free speech at universities across the nation - especially in the form of similarly-labeled “free speech zones? which have sprung up on campuses across the nation since the 1980’s as a way to allow expression without disrupting the learning process.

Recently, however, students and activists on many of these campuses have fought back against the zones, which, as they see it, effectively ban speech on other areas of campus. And many of these universities, under the threat of increasing public dissent, have removed the zones.

In 1988-89, students at Tufts University from a variety of political backgrounds fought back against the declaration of “free-speech? and “non-free-speech? zones by using chalk and tape to mark off the zones of censored speech. The tactic, intending to make the campus look like Berlin in 1946, drew widespread media attention and support for the students, which eventually caused Tufts to abandon the policy.

West Virginia University (WVU), in violation of its own constitutional doctrines, established two minor free speech zones on campus, cutting off the other 99% of the grounds from freedom of expression. In 2002, the Federation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote the President of the university, who was the first in the campus’s history to enforce the unpopular speech restrictions, urging him “to tear down the barriers to speech and declare all of WVU a ‘Free Speech Zone.’? The group pointed out that while courts have allowed “reasonable? time, place, and manner restrictions on free speech (prohibiting loudspeakers at 3:00 a.m. outside of dorms, for example), these cases weren’t intended to establish constitutional protections as the exception instead of the rule. As Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE, claimed, “These absurdly named ‘Free Speech Zones’ have no place at the free institutions of a free society. A public university does not have the authority to repeal the Bill of Rights.?

The Supreme Court itself has upheld the particular importance of preserving free speech at universities, referred to as “marketplaces of ideas? where free expression and disputation of ideas holds the greatest significance. The Court has stated that “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.?

The landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines provided the high-water mark of protections for the free speech of students. The case arose during the height of the Vietnam War, when a group of students were suspended for wearing black armbands in protest of the war. School officials had prohibited the armbands when they discovered the plan the day before, fearing that they would cause a campus disruption, and were infuriated when students wore the armbands anyways. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the idea that no act of free speech can be prevented simply because it provides a possibility for causing a disruption, effectively barring school officials from making preventative restrictions.

Since that case, other courts have chipped away at students’ free speech rights, but the overall protection still bears its strength. The cases in which student speech can be restricted, however, were expanded to include the following: (1) acts which interfere with the normal operation or academic mission of the school, (2) invasion of the rights of others, (3) vulgar, lewd, obscene, or offensive words or acts, and (4) school-sponsored speech. In addition, as mentioned earlier, schools may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech; for example, while a school may not prevent a student from handing out fliers, they can prevent the fliers from being passed out during class time, or limit the number of fliers to lower the amount of litter on campus. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that limits on campus speech can only be strong enough to protect normal campus activities.


The “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions? clause is the foundation on which the majority of UCSC’s student speech constraints are made. UCSC’s “Policy on Use of University Properties,? listed under article 40.00 in UCSC’s rulebook (available online), states that the freedoms granted by the First Amendment may be exercised in “areas open to the public generally.? These areas, however, are defined as the “outdoor areas of the campus (e.g., lawns, patios, plazas) that are at least 10 feet from the entrances/exits of campus buildings,? excluding recreational areas.

This clause has been used against students protesting military recruiters at the career fair on campus earlier this year. The students, who were handing out fact sheets about things such as discrimination in the military and alternative scholarship opportunities, were demanded, on threat of removal by campus police, to move away from the entrance of the Stevenson Event Center next to which a “Free Speech? mural is painted.

Amplified sound of any kind - including megaphones - may not be used without prior approval from the administration. Areas in which student organizations may freely hold events without special written permission from the administration, as listed in article 30.00, are limited to the upper quarry amphitheater, college quads, the base of campus, and the Quarry Plaza.

Note that the McHenry Library isn’t included in this list - as of last year, it was exempted from being a free expression area, though pressure to reverse that decision has reached all the way up to the Chancellor’s office. The Quarry Plaza also has several special restrictions regarding events, and in most cases, obtaining approval to hold a rally is necessary. Legend has it that the original design of UCSC with the small, separate residential colleges purported to prevent Berkeleyesque student gatherings by limiting the number of large, central areas on campus where students could assemble. The administrative policy seems to have a similar purpose.

The UC has justified these restrictions with the claim that they are necessary to prevent disruptions of the everyday activities of the University. However, UCSC has never had an incident with student events, protests, or gatherings that escalated to the point of disciplinary action; so what exactly are these measures attempting to prevent? When students’ rights to assemble peaceably and express their minds are dependent on the pre-approved consent of administrators, who has the ultimate say over where and when we can speak our minds, what we say, and how we say it?

As Kors stated in his tirade against WVU, public universities are, by definition, institutions that serve to promote the free association and proliferation of ideas, places where enterprising young minds can openly learn, debate, and reform their diverse ideologies. A university such as UCSC, which understands the importance of bringing these ideals to life through political and social activism, cannot claim to support these ideas while simultaneously denying students the means of gathering together and expressing the strength of their beliefs with their bodies and words. If we are to have the rights of free speech and assembly at the University, they must, above all things, be unalienable.

However, as Utah Phillips once said, “The state can’t give you free speech, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free...?

UCSC Rule Book

The Rutherford Institute – Teaching Public Schools the ABCs of the Constitution

ACLU Free Speech Advocacy

Commentary on Free Speech Zones at Bush Rallies

CNN – Schools Under Fire for “Free-Speech Zones?

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Re: Freedom of Speech in America

How about some free speech on SC Indiemedia? Ive seen countless articles get censored here for their failure to fall into robotic lockstep with the liberal agenda. They go to the Hidden area sometimes, but more often than not they go to Deleted instead and then no one can even comment on their content and stand up against the censors to insure that our rights are respected by the self-appointed Indie elite who control what we can say!

Re: Free Speech everywhere!

I AGREE! I hate SC Indiemedia.

the self-appointed Indie elite who control what we can say have forced me to post this comment!

Those self-appointed Indie elite are not in control, they are out of control!

SC Indiemedia is doing a TERRIBLE job of allowing people in the community the chance to post comments, articles, audio, photos, and videos! It is a mystery how all those people were able to get their stories past the self-appointed Indie elite who control what we can say!

Now you know why i don't post comments on SC Indiemedia. In fact, I've got my nose in the Sentinel right now!

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

I've seen posts vanish before, very curious...

If this was such an open format, it would operate more like wikipedia, one would think...

Censorship at UCSC and IMC

UCSC is terrible when it comes to Freedom of Speech. I have been ordered to leave when I was tabling in the outdoor Quad area because I was "not an official campus group".

Apparently the University has to approve of your group before you can exercise your 1st amendment rights. Likewise, events that are open to the public have no protection from being video-taped or audio taped, yet the University routinely denies reporters this 1st amendment protected activity.

Regarding censorship on Indymedia: I think it is done arbitrarily where hate comments can stay up for weeks, other comments that didn't involve anything other than a viewpoint the monitor didn't agree with being censored without explanation.

I take a lot of heat because I take a pro-Israel position. But I do NOT engage in name-calling, personal attacks, or racist comments but instead I am the victim of these.

My victimizers can continue unchallenged while my well-thought out and germain responses get censored.

I think this violates the spirit of the IMC where the people get to have their own forum for communication and information exchanges.

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

Interesting, though, Becky, that the death threat someone posted against you, as well as other hate speech (including using the "C" word in reference to you) *was* removed. I give you credit for staying away from vulgarities, though.

I like the wikipedia format, too, but that is an international site. The comment section works much like a correction section, but obviously doesn't let people edit the actual text.

My experience with the Santa Cruz IMC is that is it a lot more lenient than other Indy sites. (Take, for example, the fact that your critical comments are still here.) I've found that other sites are a lot more heavy handed.

So far I've only had a couple of posts removed. When I reviewed the editorial guidelines (something like that), I recognized how someone might have interpreted them as being in violation of their policies. It wasn't such a big deal. I rewrote them and learned from it and now I don't have any problems since I understand the parameters I'm dealing with.

As for the UCSC Project, thanks for writing this article. I understand how really loud amplified music can interfere with instruction, but limiting the use of a megaphone is riduculous! I find this to be sexist since women generally have softer voices than men.

Limiting "free speech" to all public areas ten feet *outside* of buildings seems excessive and restrictive to me, especially since the vast majority of people spend most of their time indoors. A great protest might be a mass reading of the Bill of Rights, via "talking" on cell phones like the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping has done. (His website is

Personal Attack

Re: Becky's comment:
"But I do NOT engage in name-calling, personal attacks"

Hard not to chuckle at that one.

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

I quit posting on "free speech" indymedia because 3 out of 4 of my posts get deleted. Anyone from indymedia willing to comment?

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

Your comments were not deleted. If you really did have a problem with the site it was due to tech issues.

Think about it. If you really wanted your comments posted, you would have tried posting them again instead of just bitching about Indymedia.

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

"P. Davidson," the IMC TROLL, is flat-out lying.

Here is a link to SC IMC's "hidden articles" archive:

and another link to SC IMC's "deleted articles" archive:

See, *nothing* really gets completely deleted here. A quick perusal of the links above found no record of your "deleted" comments, so what gives?

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

First things first. "Laughing" and "Free Speech Everywhere" is obviously the same person, probably Lee Kaplan. (When you use two psuedonyms, try coming up with another phrase besides, "self-appointed Indie elite")

FSE wrote: "to insure that our rights are respected" That's spelled, "ensure." IMC is not a government agency, but a collection of individuals, who volunteer to run this site. As such, the people who run IMC have NO OBLIGATION to "ensure your rights." Just like the editor of makes decisions about what goes on that site, so too do the editors here on SC IMC. They get to make decisions about which articles are featured on the site, and which articles aren't. Sometimes stories get posted that do not meet the criteria for what the VOLUNTEERS WHO RUN THE SITE have decided on. Those articles are put into the hidden page, deleted page, or sometimes just moved to the "elsewhere" newswire. Get over it, and next time, try and write your articles and comments with these guidelines in mind:

Re: Freedom of Speech in America

no, i am not the same person as "free speech everywhere."

my comment was sarcasm:

A form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language and is intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule.

Sorry about the confusion. The truth is that I LOVE Santa Cruz Indymedia and feel the editorial volunteers are doing their best for our (local and global) community.

love and solidarity,


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