Zoning Speech

Freedom of assembly under fire


On November 1, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the City of Tampa and its chief of police on behalf of three peaceful protestors who had been forcibly removed from a presidential rally. Janis Lentz, Mauricio Rosas, and Sonja Haught had committed the crime of holding signs with unwelcome messages: "Investigate Florida Votergate," "June Is Gay Pride Month," and "Boo!"

The June rally, attended by President Bush, took place at Legends Field, a private (though tax-funded) stadium. Under other circumstances one might argue that its owners have a right to exclude whomever they please. But as a St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, the "private" rally "had a distinctly public character." It was run in part by public employees and organized in part by White House staff; a White House spokesperson called it "a governmental, presidential event."

The three expelled sign holders were not the only people in Tampa who wanted to protest the president's visit. About 150 were sent to a specially designated First Amendment Zone created by local statute, half a mile from the event. There they chanted, waved signs, and otherwise expressed their political views to any ralliers who happened to be dreadfully lost.

Such free speech zones are most common on college campuses, which first experimented with the idea in the 1960s. In the last five years, more than 20 colleges have instituted such restrictions, in what Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls a "perversion of constitutional law" that suggests "speech is to be feared, regulated, and monitored at all times."

Under fire from civil libertarians, some schools, including West Virginia University, Penn State, and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, have backed off such regulations. Others continue to segregate controversial speech. The University of Texas, which ran into a conflict last year over the proper placement of an anti-abortion display, is thinking of renaming its "free speech zones" as "amplified sound areas." Depending on whom you ask, this is either an Orwellian obfuscation or a welcome return to neutral regulation of the time, place, and manner of speech.

Meanwhile, as events in Tampa and elsewhere show, speech zoning has started to spread into the post-matriculation world. From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Stockton, California, protesters at presidential appearances have been sent to small, distant speech zones and threatened with arrest if they try to leave. Apparently, when George W. Bush comes to town, the right of free assembly gets suspended.