Examining the “free speech area” on campus

Photo by Brenda Lin

The arrival of outside demonstrators at Tech last week, sparked a discussion on campus about free speech as several student groups organized counter-protests and alternate programming. Among the most controversial parts of the Southeast Preachers Association’s (SOPA) comments were those made against gays and lesbians, which many students called anti-gay and hateful.

“So these people, due to their first amendment free speech laws are allowed to come out here and preach hate and we figured it would not be right if some Tech students did not come out and preach love as well,” said Schuyler Cottrell, a first year ME student and counter-protestor.

One particular issue was the attempted scheduling of a drum circle near the small amphitheater, often called the free speech area. According to Lisa Ray Grovenstein, Media Relations Director, Capital Planning and Space Management denied a request for students to play drums during SOPA’s event.

“Since playing the drums would have been either disruptive or would have interfered with the lawful use of the free speech space, the request was not approved,” Grovenstein said.

Despite this, several students exercised their speech rights in a counterprotest. Around a hundred students sat in the bleachers of the amphitheater, holding signs saying things such as “Jesus had two dads” and “you had me at meat tornado,” and engaging with the demonstrators.

According to Tech’s Free Expression policy, “Georgia Tech holds the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the right to assemble peaceably as an essential cornerstone to the advancement of knowledge and the right of a free people.”

“What you need to remember is the policy is that we are for free speech and we don’t try to control the content of anybody’s speech,” said Gary Wolovick, an attorney for the Office of Legal Affairs.

Although outside groups must be allowed to demonstrate on campus, outside groups must reserve space in advance, and the spaces they can reserve are usually limited to the “Free Speech Areas,” usually the small amphitheater where SOPA was demonstrating.

“The procedure really has to do with time place and manner,” Wolovick said. “It really has to do with making sure that the space isn’t being used by somebody else or that space is adequate.”

Tech students and staff are less limited in the time and places they can protest, demonstrate or otherwise exercise their free speech rights.

“For the campus community members, they can pretty much go anywhere as long as they don’t disrupt the institution,” said Dr. William Schafer, Vice President of Student Affairs. “They don’t have to reserve that spot to go over there and express themselves.”

According to Schafer, some students are confused about the institute’s responsibilities regarding free speech.

“I think it probably calls for more education about free speech,” Schafer said. “I’m assuming [students] would think that was not okay [for them to protest] and so you know [that] part of the campus is to encourage people to talk about important issues and sometimes people don’t want to hear those issues.”

“The great part about living in the United States though is that right to free speech and so we’re not against that, but it does hurt students and that’s why we wanted to be there just in case we saw someone hurting that would happen to walk by we could be there to talk to them,” said Emily Ard, Campus Ministry Intern at CCF, an organization who participated in supporting the LGBTQIA community.

The demonstrations lasted three days, from Wednesday until Friday.