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EDITORIAL: Next UNLV president must expand free speech

UNLV’s presidential search committee met Monday, settling on a process and job description for the school’s next leader. Specifically, as reported by the Review-Journal’s Kristy Totten, the committee wants a diverse group of three to five candidates to visit campus and complete interviews. Those candidates must have a mix of academic and business skills.

The committee left out one very important criteria: UNLV’s next president must be an unrelenting advocate for free speech on campus.

If the search committee needs some guidance, it can look to the University of Oregon. Susan Kruth of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports that Oregon President Michael Gottfredson has signed a new academic freedom policy, granting university faculty and staff what FIRE considers some of the strongest free speech protections in the country.

The policy extends to students, which bolsters the school’s already-strong Freedom of Inquiry and Free Speech policy, adopted in 2010. That policy, Ms. Kruth wrote, “particularly emphasizes that someone’s ‘belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, and in any other way despicable, detestable, offensive or just plain wrong cannot be grounds for its suppression.’ It even implicitly prohibits heckler’s vetoes, supporting ‘the right of protesters to engage with speakers in order to challenge ideas, so long as the protest does not disrupt or stifle the free exchange of ideas.’”

Nevada’s Board of Regents would do well to make the aforementioned policies at Oregon a litmus test for whomever is selected to interview for the UNLV presidency. The post was vacated by Neal Smatresk, who resigned in February to take over leadership of the University of North Texas. Don Snyder is acting UNLV president until the position is filled.

At the moment, on FIRE’s red-yellow-green rating of colleges nationwide — think of a traffic signal regulating the flow of free speech — UNLV has an overall rating of red. That should be completely unacceptable to anyone aspiring to lead the university. (In fact, Oregon still has an overall red rating because of deficiencies with other speech policies). Having a strong advocate for freedom of speech on campus is even more important following commencement season, which highlighted the growing problem of speaker disinvitations and forced withdrawals. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers University), International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde (Smith College) and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Brandeis University) — all women and all highly accomplished in their respective fields — found themselves on the “wrong” side of free speech and either withdrew or were disinvited.

It’s part of a growing trend that FIRE examined last month, noting that from 2000 to 2013, 192 such incidents occurred, with 15 more so far in 2014. From 2012 to 2014, FIRE tracked 61 demands for disinvitation from commencements or speeches, with 26 successful — if one considers squelching free speech “successful.” The top three reasons for disinviting speakers: perceived views on gay rights, abortion or the war on terror.

College campuses have long been considered marketplaces of ideas, but the marketplace is narrowing around the country because of political correctness run amok. Kudos to Oregon for working to improve its free-speech policies. UNLV should do likewise, and the best place to start is by hiring a strong free-speech advocate to lead the university.

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