MCCCD Eliminates Free Speech Zones, Allowing Expression Everywhere On Campuses

By Annika Cline
Published: Monday, November 7, 2016 - 4:28pm
Updated: Monday, November 7, 2016 - 4:33pm
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Image Courtesy of Maricopa County Community College District

You may have heard of something at colleges and universities called a free-speech zone. That’s a space on campus designated for students to exercise their First Amendment right, whether that’s protesting, gathering signatures or passing out pamphlets. The Maricopa County Community College District recently eliminated its free speech zones on all 10 campuses. 

“So now every outdoor area on any college campus within the Maricopa Community College system is available for what we call free expression,” said Heidi Capriotti, spokesperson for the district.

Capriotti said the only restriction now is that the speech can’t interfere with the day-to-day business of a college. Students can’t disrupt a lesson, for example. But before the change, students had to remain in the free-speech zone, and also get permission to use it.

“What those policies do is they restrict both spontaneous and anonymous speech for students on campus,” said Tyson Langhofer, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Langhofer represented student Brittany Mirelez in a case against Paradise Valley Community College, one of the 10 campuses in the district. He said Mirelez used the speech zone to talk to students about joining a youth organization but was stopped because she hadn’t gotten permission ahead of time.

“She’s in the free-speech zone, she’s not blocking any entrances, she’s not interfering with any activities,” Langhofer said. “She’s simply handing out her material, and the table was already set up. There’s no reason that a prior reservation is required in that case.”

The lawsuit argued it’s unconstitutional for a public college to restrict free speech to one place on campus, and to require permission to use that space. The suit was dismissed Friday, because they were happy with the district’s changes.

And another change came out of it — Langhofer said thanks to the suit, the state passed House Bill 2615 in May, which says a community college or university may not designate an area as a free-speech zone.

Capriotti said the situation was an opportunity for the district to change an outdated policy.

“Now most colleges use their entire campus space as free-speech areas where free speech and free expression is encouraged and welcomed and considered part of the learning process, and it’s one of the values that we uphold,” she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to Rio Salado College, one of the Maricopa County Community College District schools.

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