Wielding the First Amendment on Campus

Thomas DeMaio, Campuszette 

How college students can stand up and change the tide in America.

Last month, Florida Atlantic University made waves when students banded together and voted on a piece of legislation that protects the First Amendment rights on campus.

Sounds silly, right? Why would a university student government need to vote to protect the First Amendment? Isn’t it one of our founding rights?

What many do not know is that college campuses all across the country have patches of land referred to as “free speech zones.” Imagine a designated area on a college campus, roughly the size of a baseball dugout, where students have to request the university for its use in order to express their opinions and participate in peaceful demonstrations. This “free speech zone” is an oxymoron, giving a university’s personnel the power to decline a student’s (or student organization’s) request to use the space, curbing students from expressing their freedom of speech. While it might sound crazy, this is an unfortunate reality for most colleges and universities.

harvard_small Wielding the First Amendment on Campus

I am a former vice president of student government at FAU and a current graduate student at the university. For months I have thought about the silliness of having a “free speech lawn” on campus, so recently I decided to take matters into my own hands. I reached out to a current student government leader and we authored a resolution that would address the “free speech lawn.”

The resolution addressed how some policies make it complicated for students to even reserve the space on campus, as well as why the free speech zone is located in a secluded area on campus, where protesters can be ignored. After getting student government leaders to sponsor the legislation, we submitted it to FAU’s largest legislative body, the Boca Raton House of Representatives.

Similar to our state and federal government, bills and resolutions are required to have sponsors (in this case students who are elected to the legislative body). All legislation is subject to review by various committees that make sure that the legislation follows federal, state, and local laws, as well as falls under the jurisdiction of Student Government Policy. After passing through the proper channels, our Free Speech Resolution made its way to the floor of our House of Representatives.

After countless discussions, questions, and pros versus cons, the student government leaders moved to vote on the legislation. I am happy to say that FAU Student Government leaders stood firm in protecting the First Amendment rights on campus and signed legislation that would begin the process of making FAU into the first official “Free Speech University.” In fact, it had a 91 percent favorable vote. This resolution was supported by students of all races, religions, and political backgrounds and it is the start of something that all Americans can get behind. The concept of freedom of speech is something that unites people from all walks of life.

Students all around the country need to fight for their right for freedom of speech. In recent times, people have begun to be offended by everything. The rise of those “being offended” has led to cases where students become emotionally frustrated at those who express opposing views of their own. The way I look at it, no one is going to be right 100 percent of the time in life. That is why it is important for people to be open to others’ perspectives in order to better themselves and others.

This piece is part of a CampusZette series exploring the culture, oddities, and experiences of students on college campuses through their eyes.

People are not born close-minded; people are just being brought up in a society that says it is easier for people to see what makes someone different from us, rather than see the many little things that actually makes us all so similar. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

I challenge students to try to be more tolerant of those they disagree with and to encourage others to have open dialogues on their campuses. If we make students second-guess expressing themselves, then we are restraining their ability to learn. Universities should embrace freedom of speech so that students can challenge their core beliefs and begin to form opinions for themselves. Listening to someone else’s viewpoints can open one’s minds to alternative perspectives and change the individual’s opinions, or it could enforce one’s current opinion on a topic.

At the end of the day, having an opened-minded discussion was something our country was founded upon and it is important that college students create a much-needed change in this country. We must learn to be open-minded and shed the “us vs. them” mentality we have all fallen victim to, or we will continue to see our rights and freedoms slip away, just as my campus was experiencing with its free speech zone.

Thomas DeMaio is a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University.