James Girnus’ Speech to the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, April 5, 2006

By April 5, 2006

I am very concerned with UNR’s discouraging and unconstitutional speech policies so I decided to research other campus policies to make a comparison to our own school. In my research I stumbled upon a group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. I contacted the group and they immediately began to research our policies. They called me back and told me that our policies were “some of the worst they have seen” and they agreed to help me in the fight to guarantee UNR students their First Amendment rights. I have communicated to Samantha Harris, a representative of the group, and we drafted the following letter.

I attended the free speech forum last Wednesday. I was excited to see the large number of students in attendance; however, I was disappointed with the low turnout of senators, and the ones that did attend left early. None of the representatives of UNR could provide any legitimate reason why the free speech zones were instituted in the first place. However, one can see from the articles online and in on-campus newspapers; the GSA passing legislation abolishing zoned speech on campus; the demonstration last week; the general opinion at the public forum for free speech; and I am telling you myself, that your policies are discouraging and infringe on our constitutional rights.

First, I would like to address the Christian fundamentalist group that has been the cause of much controversy lately. Many students cite these people as an example of why UNR should restrict speech. I am afraid that some of these students do not understand what free speech is. We could learn from Voltaire when he said, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.” Or Salman Rushdie when he said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Usually, when a group is demonstrating, they are advocating an unpopular idea, an idea that may even be offensive to some people, but nonetheless they are still protected by the First Amendment and they have a right to express themselves as much as any other group. Whether or not they violated UNR’s sexual harassment policy is a different issue. Above all else, when addressing activists like these Christian fundamentalists, we should keep in mind the following quote by Woodrow Wilson: “I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking.”

I would like to address some other arguments I have heard against opening traditional public areas to free speech. Some people are saying that free expression may cause a disruption in the learning process. For this I would like refer to the Preamble of the Student’s Bill of Rights: “The freedom to learn depends upon opportunities and conditions in the classroom, on the campus, and in the larger community.” UNR claims that the freedom to learn depends on opportunities and conditions on the campus, however they are limiting our opportunities and denying us this freedom. Free speech zones are disrupting our education. A university is a marketplace of ideas, a fort of intellectual truth seekers, and most importantly, it is an institution that thrives on challenging conventional wisdom. When people say that free expression would be a disruption to our education they are assuming that our education exists solely in a classroom, however the Preamble clearly disagrees. The reason why I came to a university (a collection of colleges), rather than going to a single college, was because I wanted the university experience, I wanted to be a part of this marketplace of ideas. A good deal of what I have learned from being a part of a university was not in a classroom. Like the preamble says, free inquiry and free expression are indispensable in attaining an education.

I would like to read you lines 1 and 2 of the Preamble. Line 1: “The University exists for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society.” Line 2: “Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.” Some of you may be thinking, well, UNR has given you a place to express yourself. According to FIRE and the ACLU of Nevada, it is not UNR’s or the Board of Regents’ right to restrict us from any traditional public spaces. As an example, I would like to read you an excerpt from an article describing the group I am working with and their lawsuit against Texas Tech University:

Judge Cummings determined that a university policy requiring students to get prior permission before engaging in even casual free expression was not sufficiently “narrowly tailored” to be enforced against students at a public university. Judge Cummings stated that “the Prior Permission section…sweeps too broadly in imposing a burden on a substantial amount of expression that does not interfere with any significant interests of the University.” The judge found a policy limiting the distribution of pamphlets unconstitutional for the same reason. Texas Tech had also specified certain “free speech zones” in which freedom of speech would not be restricted. Judge Cummings further augmented that area by ruling that the policy must be interpreted to allow free speech for students on “park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas…irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not.”

The zones you have provided are small and remote. Similarly, zoning speech will always discourage expression and assembly. One must get signed approval 48 hours in advance; if students had wanted to conduct a candlelight vigil the night of September 11, they would have to had to do so illegally by breaking the 48 hour policy. Also, of the four zones, two are in extremely remote locations. It would be silly to demonstrate in the Manzanita Bowl, where only a few people walk by every hour. I am ashamed of our policies, which FIRE told me are “some of the worst they have seen.” I’m sure that our founding fathers would also be ashamed of the imaginary lines that UNR has drawn, telling students that once they cross the line their First Amendment rights no longer apply to them. I am here today with the support of much of the student body, a good deal of professors, FIRE, and the ACLU of Nevada, and I’m telling UNR that we do not want to compromise by expanding free speech zones. We want zoned speech abolished at UNR, and we want all traditional public spaces, including sidewalks, paved areas, grassy areas, and pavilions open to assembly and speech without any kind of prior permission.

I would like to end with a quote by Charles Bradlaugh: “Without free speech no search for truth is possible… no discovery of truth is useful…. Better a thousand-fold abuse of speech than a denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.”

Schools: University of Nevada, Reno Cases: University of Nevada at Reno: Unconstitutional Free Speech Zone Policy