Free speech zones questioned

By Jason Perry, Arts and Features Staff Writer – [email protected]
The First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to freedom of speech.
This guarantee is being questioned at UNC Asheville.
“It alarms me that there is a free speech zone at all,” said Diana Kruk, vice chair of Move to Amend, with her voice raised and fist in the air. “I feel like a university campus should be a bastion of free thinking, free speech and free association, and by establishing a free speech zone you eliminate that.”
UNCA has two free speech zones where visitors are able to protest outside Brown Hall, at Reed Plaza, and on the lawn near the Ramsey Library steps, according to university regulations. Protesting outside the free speech zones is not permitted for non-student groups.
Kruk said she thinks having free speech zones takes away people’s First Amendment rights. She thinks people should have a right to protest anywhere on campus.
“When you criminalize free thinking, free speech and free association by making anything outside those parameters, it’s incredibly detrimental to society at large,” Kruk said. “When you do that at a college campus I think it is incredibly detrimental to the entire process of higher learning.”
Eric Boyce, UNCA chief of police, said he wants protesters’ voices to be heard, but he runs into problems when protests impede campus activities.
“That is not just for on campus, but anywhere, and that is important for folks who are organizing protests,” Boyce said. “When you start running into problems is where you are in front of Bank of America, and not letting customers come in.”
Kruk said the system will take care of itself. She said a couple of people protesting would not affect campus activity.
“If there are four people who are trying to be disruptive they are not going to be given much credence,” Kruk said. “They are not going to be that disruptive.”
Kruk said that if enough people are behind an issue, then the issue deserves to be heard.
“The windows are thick enough to drown out four people,”  Kruk said. “But if it is a situation where enough people get riled up about it, then it should be listened to.”
Gray McDiarmid, senior biology student from Greensboro, said the free speech zone is necessary but should be expanded.
“I really would like to see the freedom of speech on campus to include the entire campus,” said McDiarmid, while protesting for smokers’ rights. “I do understand the need for a designated protest zone for people coming outside of campus, because we do get a lot of anti-abortion people, with their big graphic images.”
McDiarmid said he has experience protesting outside of the free speech zones, but was redirected to Reed Plaza. He said he did not receive any harassment from campus police.
“They are polite police officers,” said McDiarmid, with a grin.
Sophie Silver-Isenstadt, a former UNCA student, said regulating the free speech zone is a good idea.
Silver-Isenstadt said there should be more free speech areas.
“I feel like protests can get out of hand, and it is a bad idea to regulate the good from the bad,” Silver-Isenstadt said. “That will take away people with good intention rights, but it is sometimes necessary. You need to be cautious about what could happen if you give everyone the right to do that.”
Boyce said protesters were arrested for protesting outside of the free speech zones when Vice President Joe Biden spoke on campus.
Boyce said there was a secure zone around Justice Gym and people were scanned and checked before entering.
“The protesters that were arrested did not agree with the free speech zone in Reed Plaza that we normally have and wanted to be a little closer to the activities towards the Justice Gym,” Boyce said. “They were arrested.”
Boyce said most protests on campus are peaceful, and UNCA students are responsible about making their voices heard.
Kruk said the free speech zones are only limiting students.
“Having a free speech zone and anything outside of that intimidates and scares people into submission,” Kruk said. “It is kind of similar to militarizing our police force. When the culture is that way there becomes a system where there is an enemy. There is an us and a them, and when that happens, people lose rights.”
Eric Boyce, UNC Asheville’s chief of police, said he had his first experience with protesting on national TV.
Hundreds of protesters gathered to witness a debate between President George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore at Wake Forest University.
Boyce was one of six police officers assigned to keep hundreds of protesters in line.
“We put the bike rack type fencing around those areas, and those groups had to remain in those areas.” said Boyce, recalling the scene.
The event took place at Wake Chapel, and the Quad area was a secure zone off limits to people on campus.
Boyce said that if a person tried to stand up and heckle the event, it was his job to take care of it.
Boyce said he was up from 5:30 a.m. until midnight working the scene. He said the event went really well because of the communication between authorities and protesters.
Boyce said he had a hard but successful first experience with protesting.
“That was my first experience with civil protest or disobedience,” Boyce said. “It was a national event, and it went really well because we were able to communicate.”