David Colborne: Nevada’s Colleges Not The Best For Free Speech

From an article by David Colborne on the Nevada Capital Libertarian Party blog:

FIRE recently announced via Huffington Post the top seven schools in the country that respect free speech. Sadly, none of them are in Nevada – in fact, both UNR and UNLV currently receive the dreaded “red light” rating from FIRE due to open-ended sexual harassment policies and ridiculously broad prohibitions against “offensive” speech from residents of on-campus housing and users of the universities networks. For example, UNR’s Residence Hall Handbook (available in PDF format here) includes this:

“IV. Disorderly Conduct/ Unacceptable Behavior This University has always created an environment for raising challenging questions and the discussion of significant issues.  There is perhaps none more significant than the challenge and issue of free speech.  Our residence and dining halls exist to complement the educational mission of an institution of higher learning. Our expectations and standards of acceptable behavior are reflective of our purpose.

“Violating these provisions can lead to immediate removal from the residence halls.

“A. Any behavior or action, physical or verbal, in which the mode of expression is lewd, vulgar, indecent and plainly offensive irrespective of its content or viewpoint. Verbal abuse, offensive language, which, when viewed objectively, creates a hostile environment substantially disrupting or interfering with the work of the school or the rights of other students, including, but not limited to, that which constitutes discrimination or harassment relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or any other protected class.”

Naturally, I’m a little curious how one views a physical or verbal behavior or action “objectively”. For example, people concluded “objectively” that the waltz was prurient in nature during Mozart’s because a couple would – gasp! – embrace each other while performing it. Then there’s the open-ended nature of discrimination and harassment in general; as every workplace sexual harassment seminar I’ve ever attended has kindly pointed out, harassment is not determined by the intent of the person delivering it, but instead by the reception of the person receiving it. In other words, it’s harassment if someone else says it’s harassment, whether you meant it in offense (or even if they heard it correctly) or not. Though I can understand why a stilted corporate culture, one in which all of the human resources must work together for profitable purpose, might embrace such a stance, it’s baffling why a public university would embrace this approach.

It gets better, though…

“B. Threatening behavior, whether written, verbal or physical to others or self.”

Don’t threaten to kick your own ass for a stupid mistake on an exam – that’s threatening behavior and will get you kicked out of the dorms. Not that it matters; if they really want to kick you out of the dorms, they can just use this:

“F. Any behaviors, which demonstrate an inability to abide by the requirements for group living.”

Gee, that’s specific.

In all seriousness, though I haven’t had first-hand experience with UNR’s residence halls and the enforcement of their policies in years, I don’t recall them enforcing their policies with a heavy hand. I’m sure UNR’s RAs and administrative staff have only the best of intentions for their students and have no ill will or desire to infringe upon the rights and freedom of expression of their charges. However, if anyone in the UNR Residence Hall ever changed their mind, there is more than sufficient leeway within UNR’s policies to chill speech and remove just about anyone out of a dorm room for just about any petty slight imaginable. It’s clear, especially given the positive, pro-speech examples of sound policies at the seven universities listed by FIRE, that the Nevada System of Higher Education has no excuse for the sorry state of the current rules and regulations they force our students to labor under.

3 thoughts on “David Colborne: Nevada’s Colleges Not The Best For Free Speech

  1. Andy

    I gathered signatures on a petition for marijuana legalization at the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus multiple times back in the fall of 2004 and I never had any problems there. I did not ask for “permission” to do it there either, I just showed up and got signatures and I was never hassled at all.

    I don’t know if UNLV has cracked down on free speech since then, but from my expierence there back in 2004 I thought that it was among the best colleges for free speech.

    I have gathered petition signatures and/or voter registrations at 64 colleges in 24 states and my expierence has been that some of them are very good for free speech while others are like a tyrannical police state, and of course others fall between the two extremes.

  2. David Colborne

    Andy, our university system is generally pretty well behaved, especially after the ACLU case against UNR in 2006. However, with the policies in place, there’s very little stopping them from changing their attitude in the future.

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