On Tuesday, two political organizations on campus, Turning Point USA (TPUSA) and Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), rolled around a giant beach ball called the “free speech ball.” They encouraged anyone they met along the way to write anything they wanted to on the ball to affirm their first amendment right to freedom of speech.
The free speech ball was partly in protest of Penn State’s Policy AD51 “Use of Outdoor Areas for Expressive Activities,” which outlines “locations for expressive activity”:
“Based upon careful study, the following areas of the University Park Campus have been designated as areas suitable for expressive activity:
- Old Main front patio
- Allen Street Gate Plaza
- Willard Building patio area between Willard and Obelisk
- Palmer Art Museum Plaza
- Northwest corner of Shortlidge Rd. and College Avenue
- Fisher Plaza
- IST Plaza
- Pattee Library Mall entrance plaza
- HUB-Robeson Rear sidewalk pad (not the Patio)
- HUB-Robeson Lawn
- Osmond Fountain Area (after 5pm)
- Area under the Willaman Gateway to the Life Sciences
At other University locations, the office of the Chancellor, Dean, or other administrator in charge should be consulted to identify the sites suitable for expressive activity.”
Basically, Penn State has designated “free speech zones.” These are the only place on campus you can freely express yourself. If you want to freely express yourself anywhere else, you need to get permission.
The University argues that the purpose of these “locations for expressive activity” is to ensure “that persons engaging in expressive activity will demonstrate civility, concern for the safety of persons and property, respect for University activities and for those who may disagree with their message, and will comply with University rules.”
This policy is inconsistent with the natural right of Free Speech. The university is justifying the creation of free speech zones by assuming that speech can be unsafe to people and property? How can words, which are simply vibrations in the air, make students unsafe?
First, the only form of speech that can directly put people at risk of harm are fighting words, which includes words that incites violence. Fighting words are the only exception to the free speech rule. They are the only form of speech that can be deemed “unsafe;” and, therefore, not protected under the first amendment.
There seems to be a misconception by many people that hate speech is not free speech. Hate speech is protected under the first amendment. This has been ruled by many supreme court cases, including Snyder v. Phelps, which protected the speech of the Westboro Baptist Church. As long as you are not inciting violence, you can say anything as hateful as you want on public property. Hate speech has a subjective interpretation to it that doesn’t create an objective threat to someone’s life.
For example, if someone said, “I hate Shia LaBeouf,” that doesn’t mean they are threatening Shia’s life. They are expressing a strong, negative opinion towards him, but they are in no way endangering him. If someone said, “I am going to kill Shia LaBeouf,” that is a different situation. This statement is actually making a threat to Shia’s life, which is putting him in danger. This is not protected in the first amendment.
As you can see, there is nothing dangerous about free speech, except with fighting words. This conclusion the Supreme Court and I have made is exactly why I am totally against these silly “locations for expressive activity.” The university believes that certain speech will make students feel unsafe, so we should only have certain places where you can freely express yourself.
I could say something that is deemed unsafe anywhere. How would the university know where I was going to say it? Why would that specific location be an unsafe space?
There is so much confusing grey area here, which is why I propose a simple, easy to follow solution: allow students to express themselves freely anywhere on campus. This simple rule would be consistent with the first amendment; obviously, fighting words would be an exception. No permission would be needed to express yourself; you’d be free of worry.
Penn State, as a land grant university, should just be considered as any other public space in the United States; it should follow the first amendment. The campus is a public, land-grant, university so there is no excuse for it to be treated like private property. I understand that you sign a contract to attend Penn State. There’s probably has a carefully worded part in a 500-page contract that you don’t read where you agree to follow Penn State’s rules. I still believe we should change these free speech rules. They are preventing everyone from truly speaking freely at a campus that is supposedly “a marketplace of ideas” according to Penn State themselves.
If Penn States wants to truly “encourage(s) and protect(s) the rights of members of the University community to express divergent viewpoints and opinions on matters of concern,” then they should be consistent with their principles and make the whole campus a free speech zone. They wouldn’t try to censor speech that they claim is “unsafe” when it isn’t. Penn State should end any form of censorship and become a place where all ideas are shared and challenged without fear of the PC (politically correct) police.