Virginia Postrel: ‘Free speech zones’ and other college lies
Debates aren’t, of course, the only way to showcase a wide variety of views. But debates on hot-button issues do demonstrate that the institution isn’t just feigning allegiance to the idea of intellectual diversity, and they provide models of how minority views can be confronted respectfully. A related question is whether the school has rescinded an invitation to a speaker in the face of student or faculty uproar.
To people unfamiliar with campus jargon, this question sounds like it’s asking for evidence of free speech. In fact, it’s the opposite. A “free speech zone” is a tiny portion of campus, usually far away from the main thoroughfares, where students are allowed to hand out leaflets or hold protests and rallies only after they have filed the proper paperwork and given plenty of notice.
This question illuminates where the university’s priorities lie — in teaching and research or in overhead — while also offering a clue about attitudes toward academic freedom and students’ rights. Administrators, not professors, are the ones making and enforcing rules against speech. They are the ones more concerned with maintaining order and a shiny institutional image than with intellectual inquiry and the marketplace of ideas.
Any student can potentially get caught up in disciplinary proceedings and on many campuses these processes are extremely arbitrary, even when the charges are serious enough that they should warrant criminal investigation.
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