EDITORIAL: Speech Overreach

September 3, 2014

At Las Vegas Review Journal

The calendar has turned to September, so college students across the country are heading back to their campuses, which are supposed to serve as bastions of free speech and thought.

Which is to say they don’t. At schools big and small, far and wide, all around the nation and right here in Nevada, the purveyors of tolerance are remarkably intolerant of anything they disagree with or disapprove of.

The University of Oregon provided the latest example of hostility to the First Amendment, though the Ducks are far from alone in this quackery. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported Aug. 26, a female student’s four-word joke resulted in five conduct charges levied against her by the school. The charges stemmed from a June 9 incident in which the student was visiting friends at a dormitory. According to the student, while looking out a dorm window, she saw a male and female student walking together and shouted “I hit it first,” completely in jest. She didn’t know either student.

The couple reported the student’s comment to the resident assistant at the dorm, who located the offending student and insisted that she apologize, which the student did without complaint. Case closed, right?

Wrong. This is the age of political correctness, especially on college campuses, where no case is ever “closed” for the easily offended and perpetually aggrieved. On June 13, FIRE reported, the student received a “Notice of Allegation” from the school citing five conduct violations: violating the residence hall’s noise and guest policies, and charges of harassment, disruption and disorderly conduct.

The student then contacted FIRE, which sent a letter to Oregon President Michael Gottfredson demanding the charges be dropped and that the university also revise its unconstitutional speech codes. FIRE rightly and specifically noted that the Supreme Court defines peer harassment in the educational setting as conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to effectively deprive the target of educational opportunities or benefits. “I hit it first” doesn’t rise to anywhere near that level.

Said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley: “Using an unconstitutional speech code to punish a student for a joke shows how out of control censorship has become on our campuses in the name of making everyone feel ‘comfortable.’ ”

But it’s worse than that. College administrators are well aware their policies are unconstitutional. But they know most students are terribly unaware of their rights. So college officials preserve their speech codes and use them as hammers to shame and “re-educate” students who offend their fragile sensibilities. It’s about power.

Last week, Oregon finally relented, announcing the charges against the student had been dropped, another big feather in FIRE’s cap for the month of August. On Aug. 13, the organization announced that after a coordinated effort with the University of Florida, the school eliminated all of its speech codes, earning FIRE’s highest free-speech rating.

Nevada’s Board of Regents should take note of both of these cases as it continues the search for UNLV’s next president. UNLV has a red-light rating with FIRE. The school’s next leader must be as committed to free speech as Florida President Bernie Machen, someone who believes university administrators have no business policing protected expression on campus.

Like Mr. Machen, UNLV’s next leader should shred every policy that limits protected expression.

Schools: University of Oregon Cases: University of Oregon: Student’s Four-Word Joke Results in Five Unconstitutional Disciplinary Charges