Free speech, a cornerstone of our nation’s democracy, is supposed to thrive on college and university campuses. Students can best sharpen their critical thinking skills through open, robust debate on any and all ideas.
All too often, however, the free exchange of ideas on campuses only goes as far as the sensibilities of the most easily offended.
As a result, administrators at campuses across the country — including right here in Nevada — have increasingly embraced heavy-handed, politically correct policies that discourage and even prohibit protected speech. These policies include the implementation of speech codes, required permits or college approval for First Amendment activities, and free-speech “zones” that limit assembly and expression to certain parts of campus. Students across the country have been disciplined or expelled for exercising their constitutional rights, and colleges have been successfully sued due to their unconstitutional overreaches.
“Unconstitutional campus speech codes have been a national scandal for decades, but today, 25 years after the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in court, 58 percent of college campuses still hold onto shockingly illiberal codes,” says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to defending and sustaining constitutional liberties at colleges and universities.
Last week, FIRE launched the “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project,” a national effort to use targeted First Amendment lawsuits to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes on college campuses. FIRE coordinated the filing of lawsuits against Ohio University, Chicago State University, Iowa State University and Citrus College (Calif.). The lawsuits accuse the schools of stifling free speech in a variety of ways, including banning T-shirts with potentially offensive messaging, enacting a cyberbullying policy to investigate a faculty blog exposing administrative corruption, and the reimplementation of a free speech zone that one school had already agreed to remove following a previous lawsuit.
Despite a litany of court decisions upholding free speech, colleges and universities repeatedly place obviously unconstitutional restrictions on expression. FIRE has used public awareness to fight for free campus speech for 15 years, but Mr. Lukianoff says public awareness is not enough. The group has filed two other lawsuits in the past nine months, and he says lawsuits like the four it filed this week will continue “until campuses understand that time is finally up for unconstitutional speech codes in academia.”
FIRE uses a red-yellow-green (similar to traffic lights) system to rate colleges nationwide on how freely speech flows on their campuses. One of FIRE’s lawsuits was filed in California, which is in the 9th Circuit, which includes Nevada. UNLV currently has a rating of red, according to FIRE’s system.
Instead of facing a needless lawsuit, it would be far more productive for UNLV (and the University of Nevada, Reno, for that matter) to work immediately with FIRE to clean up its policies regarding the First Amendment. With UNLV currently searching for a new president, one great way to start the cleanup would be to hire someone who truly champions free speech.