Speech Code of the Month: University of Nevada at Reno

August 24, 2005

FIRE announces the Speech Code of the Month for September 2005: the University of Nevada at Reno. The University of Nevada at Reno is a public institution, legally bound to uphold the constitutional rights of its students. Yet the university maintains a blatantly unconstitutional speech code for its residence halls, prohibiting, among other things, “offensive language.”

The Residence Hall Handbook at the University of Nevada at Reno prohibits the following behaviors:

  • “Lack of civility, any behavior or action, physical or verbal, that is meant to devalue, demean, or incite an individual or group, directly or implied, is prohibited.”
  • “Verbal abuse, including offensive language and derogatory group identity slurs (including but not limited to: race, sexual preference, gender, religion, socioeconomic status).”

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

As has been explained in cases too numerous to mention, it is unconstitutional to suppress free speech on the grounds that it is subjectively offensive to some listener. As one federal appellate court recently put it, there is “no question that the free speech clause protects a wide variety of speech that listeners may consider deeply offensive….” Saxe v. State College Area School District, 240 F.3d 200, 206 (3d Cir. 2001). In fact, the First Amendment exists precisely to protect controversial and offensive speech— if no one ever said anything objectionable, there would be no need to protect speech against would-be censors!

Courts have struck down similar speech codes at public universities such as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, and it is unlikely if not impossible that the University of Nevada at Reno’s policy could survive a constitutional challenge. For this reason, the University of Nevada at Reno is our September 2005 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

Schools:  University of Nevada, Reno