Student life on the North Plaza. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

Is Campus Free Speech Truly Free?

By Jimmy O’Hara, contributor

Peaceful resistance against hate is an important form of learning outside the classroom, and many in our Patriot community practice this at the heart of GMU’s campus, North Plaza.  A popular location for various forms of protest – think of the hate preacher who broaches controversial topics by Robinson Hall – students assume North Plaza is a designated “free speech zone.”  While we can facilitate learning through resisting hate, it is important to be aware of how “free speech” is defined on campus and know how to approach this definition.

Although House Bill 258 “prohibits public institutions of higher education from imposing restrictions on time, place, and manner” of First Amendment protected speech in outdoors areas of an institution’s campus, there’s a catch:

House Bill 258 states if such restrictions are “reasonable,” “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech,” “are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” and “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information,” the exercise of free speech can be overridden.

College campuses are hotspots for igniting conversation about differing perspectives.

If there are restrictions to “free speech zones” on campus, how can we as students, faculty, and staff encourage and facilitate a culture of open-minded learning through our interactions with free speech demonstrations on campus?  How can we encourage scholarship by resisting hate?

Mason’s Freedom of Expression Statement states “. . .being open to the ideas and opinions of other members of the community will lead to discussion that is characterized by courtesy, mutual respect, and charity,” which I agree with because practicing open-mindedness and patience in the face of intolerance is part of the academic process.  

Learning takes a variety of forms, and the skills that patient bystanders gain from engaging in the art of active listening are invaluable.  Although people have the right to free speech under “reasonable” circumstances, this doesn’t mean we can’t resist ignorance.

The patience I describe is not to be confused with liking, or even tolerating, the perspectives presented by a group with whom you disagree.  Trust me, every time I pass by the homophobic preacher, I’m tempted to punch him in the face.

But I can counter his ignorance through more creative methods.  Like the counter-protester who, standing by the preacher, held a sign that read “You Deserve Hugs,” I have the power to walk up to the preacher and kiss my boyfriend right in front of him.  Although I find his views detestable, I can challenge his line of thinking.

It is important to note that there are limitations to the perspective I offer.  In accordance with Mason’s Code of Student Conduct, examples of expression that will not be tolerated within the context of campus free speech laws include groups that represent violence and inhumanity like white supremacists and neo-Nazis.  

Next time you pass through North Plaza and a lawful, reasonable person or group with whom you disagree is exercising their right to free speech, I challenge you to approach it as a learning opportunity outside of the classroom.  You have a powerful pair of tools: your ears and your words, with which you’re free to give them hell.

Photo Courtesy of Evan Cantwell/ Creative Services