A religious speaker confronts students about their life-styles and beliefs in the Free Speech Area, provoking some anger and aggression. Roe Borunda / The Collegian

Taking a closer look at the Free Speech Area

A religious speaker confronts students about their life-styles and beliefs in the Free Speech Area, provoking some anger and aggression.
Roe Borunda / The Collegian

One of the most visible areas on campus is the Free Speech Area, which is available to students, organizations and others to spread their messages to the public.

Only university organizations and students can reserve use of the Free Speech Area platform, but if it isn’t reserved, it is open to use by anyone.

Associated Students Inc. funded the platform in May 2002.

The platform is managed by ASI’s Student Involvement office. The Free Speech Area runs from the brick wall at the east end of Taco Bell and continues westward to the main entrance of the Henry Madden Library. A straight line from the library entrance to the University Center forms the southern edge of the Free Speech Area, and it continues north, ending at the row of planters located on the walkway, according to Student Involvement guidelines.

Josh Edrington, a coordinator at Student Involvement, said the public is not limited to staying in that specific area. Most speakers use the Free Speech Area because of its heavy foot-traffic.

Students, organizations, faculty or anyone coming from off campus must obtain a permit from Student Involvement, and notify the campus of the date and time that a space will be used. The reservation system is used to avoid conflict between those who would like to use the platform.  Student Involvement regularly provides priority to students or any organization with an affiliation to Fresno State, Edrington said.

All reservations go through the review of the University Police Department to determine if the event will need any police presence.

Though the campus oversees the set date and time, it has no power over the students’ and the speakers’ messages.

“Individuals coming from the outside cannot reserve the platform, but if they show up to be out in the Free Speech Area to have their message heard, and no events are reserved for the platform, they have the ability to walk up and use it,” Edrington said.

Margarita Bocanegra, a senior at Fresno State, believes freedom of speech should be allowed on campus, but certain topics should be allowed and others should not.

“For me and my organization, you have to watch kind of what you say,” said Bocanegra, who is a member of Alpha Pi Sigma. “Be respectful. Some people might take to the extreme and insult someone.”

Bocanegra said that once people begin to get hurt, there should be a limit to freedom of speech.

“Some people might not know how to use the First Amendment,” Bocanegra said. “I feel it’s right we should have that. You just need to know how to get your point across.”

The campus has received complaints about controversial protestors who arrive on campus, Edrington said. The campus cannot take any action and must permit individuals to practice their freedom of speech.

“If an individual came out with a message that turned into what would appear to be a personal threat of some sort — where the person truly felt threatened—we would direct those individuals to the campus police department,” Edrington said. “From our standpoint, if there are any issues where any laws have been violated, we would connect to the campus police.”

Gary Nelson, senior coordinator at Student Involvement, pointed out that campus police are here to make the students feel safe. Cameras located in the area would assist police if a situation requires it.

In 1997, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at Fresno State. The only part that the school had control over was scheduling to ensure police were on scene to keep the public safe, Nelson said.

“They do have the right to freedom of speech,” Nelson said. “If there were hate, or inciting violence or saying things that are harmful to others, the police could ask the individual to stop or to leave.”

Freshman Ana Barbosa says she personally wouldn’t use the Free Speech Area and doesn’t mind those who use it.

“It doesn’t really affect me,” Barbosa said. “If I want to listen to it, if I’m interested, I’ll stop and listen. But if it doesn’t involve me, I’ll just keep walking.”

A preacher who uses the Free Speech Area often declined to comment, but did say Fresno State is the only place he speaks at.

Fresno State, as a public university, must continue to provide an area where the public may practice its First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

“Honestly, with the individuals that come out to the Free Speech Area, that’s what they do; that is their job,” Edrington said. “They know all about the First Amendment and what they can and cannot say and what’s going to be pressure points,” Edrington said.

“They realize if you are walking by and they say something to get to you, you are going to stop and get other individuals to do the same, and they will get an audience, and that is what they want.”