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EDITORIAL: State universities’ policies limit free speech

America’s colleges and universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, places where students sharpen their critical thinking skills through robust debate. However, far from encouraging free expression, campuses across the country and right here in Nevada increasingly embrace heavy-handed, politically correct policies that discourage and even prohibit protected speech.

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a comprehensive examination of free speech policies at 427 American schools, including 323 public colleges. FIRE (www.thefire.org), a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to defending and sustaining constitutional liberties at colleges and universities, found that 59 percent of the 427 schools restricted free speech in some way. Speech codes, requiring permits or college approval for First Amendment activities, and free-speech “zones” that limit assembly and expression to certain parts of campuses are too common.

FIRE rated schools in a variety of categories as either green (best), yellow or red (worst) — think of a traffic signal regulating the flow of speech — then issued a cumulative rating. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Nevada, Reno both received overall ratings of red.

That’s unacceptable.

For UNLV, the overarching problem was its “Statement on Diversity in the University Community,” which states that the university “will not tolerate any harassment of or disrespect for persons because of race, sex, age, color, national origin, ethnicity, creed, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, pregnancy, veteran status or political affiliation.”

Two major problems: The statement is far too vague on what constitutes disrespect, and it’s far too broad, because it includes political affiliation. Political speech is especially protected under the First Amendment. “Speech does not have to be respectful. ‘Respectful’ speech sounds innocuous. It connotes a sense of calmness. But people are allowed to get passionate and get angry,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of policy research.

Both UNLV and UNR have Internet use policies that impede free speech. Said Ms. Harris: “Both prohibit the sending of offensive messages or mail. ‘Offensive’ is an extraordinarily broad term, and nowadays, students and professors communicate a lot by computer. And they debate. If anybody finds any of it offensive, the students’ ability to debate on political or social issues online is severely limited.” Nobody has a right to never be offended.

There are areas in which both schools rate well. UNLV gets a green rating for its Student Conduct Code, and both UNR and UNLV rated green in Advertised Commitments to Free Expression, with FIRE having at one point assisted UNR in refining the policy.

The ramifications of these rules go far beyond the exchange of ideas. Students across the country have been disciplined and expelled for exercising their constitutional rights, and colleges have been successfully sued over their unconstitutional overreaches. Make no mistake, cracking down on ideas is tyrannical.

Ms. Harris noted that FIRE enjoys a constructive relationship with many university administrators, having helped them bring policies into compliance with the First Amendment. It would behoove UNLV and UNR to take FIRE up on such help and make freedom of speech central to the universities’ missions. UNLV’s next president should be an unrelenting defender of free speech.

If the universities defend their existing policies, allowing the most easily offended to define acceptable expression, then the elected members of the Board of Regents must intervene and defend free expression on campus.

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