Since time began, sassy teenagers have been putting authority figures in their place. The way we respond to them says a lot about the society we hope to build.
As a First Amendment specialist, I think the way we treat the Emma Sullivans of the world matters quite a lot to the kind of society we build. “Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously,” says Casper (“The Fat Man”) Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, “unless you keep in practice.” And more and more I wonder where Americans are supposed to keep in practice. Free speech can’t take place nowhere; it needs places to be uttered and places to be heard. Adults want high schools to be speech-free zones, and more and more the courts agree. Employers want the workplace speech-free zones as well. The law supports them. Recently, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment doesn’t protect even public employees who say things on the job that their employers don’t approve. During this term of the Supreme Court, lawyers for a church school argued that religious bodies should have the power to fire employees who report child sexual abuse, as required by law.
So, no training in talking while you grow up. No talking on the job once you’re grown up. Take down that cheeky tweet. Clean up that Facebook page. What about college, where students are supposed to speak their minds and follow truth wherever it may lead? Well, sure, as long as it’s, well, decorous. “University officials have generally bureaucratized and limited assembly and speech on campus,” notes Timothy Zick of the William & Mary Law School, author of Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places. ”Many campuses have adopted ‘free speech zones’ and other restrictions.”
The “free speech zone” is a marvelous invention in which certain parts of the campus are designated for expression. Gradually the rest of the campus is then shut off from bothersome protest and agitation. It’s an elegant way of making the First Amendment disappear: under that antiquated document, “the freedom of speech” is guaranteed everywhere in public — unless there’s a very strong reason why it can’t be allowed. “We don’t allow no free speech over this way,” isn’t a good reason, any more than any other part of the Constitution can be voided by saying “this isn’t a due process zone.”
And once free speech is zoned, even the “zones” may not be quite so free as all that. At one campus I taught at, a graduate student went to the “free speech zone” and delivered a piece of performance art beginning “Fuck you, fuck your friends, fuck your parents … .” He didn’t get much further before a campus cop told him, “You can’t talk like that in the free speech zone,” and led him away in handcuffs.