Fresno State faces resistance over renaming free speech zone

California State University-Fresno wants to change the name of its free speech zone to encourage free expression throughout campus, but not everyone is on board with the idea.

“Renaming the Free Speech Area on campus is a bad idea,” Opinion Editor Megan Bronson wrote in an op-ed for The Collegian, CSU-Fresno’s student newspaper. “Of course freedom of expression is taking place all over campus. That is what happens when students and professors share information.”

The op-ed was written in response to a survey that was recently sent to students by the office of Student Involvement soliciting feedback on a list of proposed alternative names for the area, which explained that “[t]his area is currently referred to as the Free Speech Area, which implies freedom of expression is confined to this area.”

In reality, though, the school’s policies do not restrict speech activities to the area, but merely allow student organizations to reserve space there for demonstrations. Reservations are not required in order to use the space, though organizations that request to use it in advance are given priority.

Bronson argues that rather than encouraging free speech in other areas of campus, the name change would actually lead to curtailment of speech because students would become confused about where they should demonstrate.

Currently, she explains, “[s]tudents know that they are welcome and invited to gather here, in a place where we are familiar with seeing other students exercise their rights,” adding that the location is ideal for such activities due to its accessibility and high foot traffic. “If the name changes,” though, she frets, “new students will have to rely on word of mouth that this is an area where they can give speeches, protest, and build community.”

Yet when the proposal to change the name of the Free Speech Area was first raised earlier this year, Josh Edrington, Student Involvement club and organization coordinator, told The Collegian that the purpose would be to underscore the fact that students are free to express their opinions anywhere on campus.

“In a sense, it almost seemed like we are containing free speech to one centralized area on campus,” he explained. “In a public institution, free speech is anywhere as long as it’s not disrupting the academic mission of the university.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is of a similar opinion, listing the university’s free speech area as a “yellow light” policy, because while it “is not meant to constrain freedom of speech on the remainder of campus, but merely to establish a forum for the convenient use of students and the general public,” the name carries the implication that free speech is somehow limited to a specific section of campus.

“We do recognize that free speech is a founding principle, and Fresno State wants to encourage free expression,” the Student Involvement Center told Campus Reform, but added “The Campus Sign Committee decided last week that more dialogue is needed before any decisions are made regarding any name change in the future.”

The importance of encouraging free speech on college campus was further highlighted in a recent poll commissioned by the William F. Buckley, Jr. program at Yale University, advance results of which were published by The Wall Street Journal.

According to the poll of about 800 college students from across the country, 51 percent of respondents reported favoring “speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty,” compared to just 36 percent who opposed such policies.

More shocking still, one-third of the students did not know that the First Amendment protects free speech, and another 35 percent claimed that it does not protect “hate speech.” Among self-identified liberals, 30 percent said that First Amendment is outdated.

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