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Free speech on campus liberated in Virginia

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On April 4, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill unanimously passed by the House of Delegates and the Senate, which turns outdoor areas on the state’s public college and university campuses into what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, calls “public forums.”

In other words, student speech will not be limited to the tiny “free speech zones” that, as FIRE documents, restrict student speech in “1 in 6 of America’s 400 top colleges” in this land of the free and home of the brave.

This is America? In these places of higher learning?

As Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, keeps revealing, these tightly squeezed campus speech zones often result in “banishing student protests, leafleting and other basic expression (political or otherwise) to tiny areas far away from the students the speech is intended to reach” (“Virginia Legislature to Campuses: Down With Free Speech (Zones)!” Greg Lukianoff, www.huffingtonpost.com, April 7).

Of course, FIRE was deeply involved in this historic unleashing of Virginia students’ First Amendment rights. But what about the state’s private colleges and universities? The pressure will now be on them, too, to allow their students to be fully American by speaking freely on those campuses.

It’s important to emphasize that, as FIRE does while it now goes on to give the First Amendment a home on other college campuses, “restricting student speech to tiny ‘free speech zones’ diminishes the quality of debate and discussion on campus by preventing expression from reaching its target audience” (“Virginia Bans Unconstitutional Campus ‘Free Speech Zones,’” www.thefire.org, April 7).

“Often, institutions that maintain these restrictive policies also employ burdensome permitting schemes that require students to obtain administrative permission days or even weeks before being allowed to speak their minds.

“Even worse, many of these policies grant campus administrators unfettered discretion to deny applications based on the viewpoint or content of the speakers’ intended message.”

Are students on those campuses learning to be active, knowledgeable participants in this self-governing republic?

Virginia’s law, which FIRE is determined to extend to other states’ schools where it’s needed, “prohibits public institutions of higher education from imposing restrictions on the time, place and manner of student speech that occurs in the outdoor areas of the institution’s campus and is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ...”

(Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.)

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