Speaking out

Four decades after Berkeley, students at UNR are demanding greater free speech rights

UNR students wore tape over their mouths to “speak” against free speech being restricted to zones on campus.

UNR students wore tape over their mouths to “speak” against free speech being restricted to zones on campus.

Photo By Kate Chantrill

“We’re trying to bring awareness to the free speech zones,” said 19-year-old UNR student Jessie Richie. “We want to get rid of them.”

That may sound like he’s against free speech, but he’s not. The Nevada Students for Peace and Solidarity member was explaining why restricting speech to “zones” is a bad idea and why a rally was being held to make the entire campus, not just a few pockets of it, a free speech zone.

“We think it’s an abusive policy that doesn’t allow students to express themselves,” he said.

Outside the student union building at UNR, students acted for their rights to free speech, some by working booths, speaking or, most notably, by duct-taping their mouths and holding signs saying, “Now leaving free speech zone.”

By contrast with the epic free speech movement that erupted at the University of California at Berkeley in October 1964—which was about the shutdown of a free speech zone—the UNR students want four existing free speech zones expanded to include the entire campus.

Graduating UNR senior JoJo Jacobson says, “There are free speech zones where you are allowed to protest, as long as you get a permit and this, that and the other thing. Apparently, the rest of the university is not a free speech zone, and we think that’s wrong by definition. It’s a university. It’s publicly funded. We’re guaranteed our First Amendment. So we should have the whole campus be a free speech zone.”

The four campus free speech zones are the plaza in front of the main library, the lawn in front of the student union, the lawn in front of the student services building on the north end of campus, and the Manzanita Bowl lawn at the southern end. This severely limits the areas that students can gather, peacefully or otherwise, to hold events, organize rallies and express their opinions to a group of people.

The current policy requires that students who want permission to hold an event in the free speech zones must attend committee meetings and obtain a permit from the Student Event Advisory Board. Though this requires time, students are willing to play by the rules for the permit because free speech is a positive aspect of the university experience.

“The one thing where you’re going to see people from all ends of the political spectrum getting together is free speech,” says Jacobson, “because no matter what, we want to be able to argue with each other and not have lawyers involved.”

In the past, lawyers have stepped in to battle on a higher level. One incident involved protests by the Queer Student Union against military recruitment policies. Members of the College Republicans initiated a legal battle to bar the QSU from campus events. Many students say they are tired of this process, and would like to resume free speech—and on a larger scale.

Christian evangelist preachers were on campus recently to “save souls,” using the free speech zones in front of the library and the student union. The preachers re-ignited debate over the zones. Some students would like only selected messages to be permitted.

Wil Giles, 19, is an international affairs major at UNR. He turned up for the free speech rally on March 29, after his own run-in with the traveling preachers. “Apparently [the rally] is about the protest that was here a couple weeks back. I was part of the crowd. I did a lot of talking with the preachers. I believe in free speech, not in harassment.”

Other students are into the disruptive, attention-getting qualities of free speech. “So you ban free speech in everywhere except for these certain zones because it would be disruptive to classes or anything that’s going on,” says 21-year-old student Tyler McPherron. “What if that’s the point? I think that’s the point of a protest, to disrupt what’s going on.”

Free speech means that all students will need tolerance in letting views that may oppose their own into the arena. Paige Thie, Northern Nevada program associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, spoke to the free speech rally-goers from a small stage outside the student union.

“We believe that the Constitution should be extended to everyone equally without any type of discrimination,” says Thie.

“Basically, the ACLU position is that the entire campus should start from the premise that it is a free speech zone. All public sidewalks, public lawns, streets, any gathering place that would be a traditional gathering place are [free speech zones] and should be for universities.”

Thie says that the university is a defined space and thus is allowed to make laws pertaining to free speech. “We believe it’s unconstitutional,” says Thie. “The issue now is to take what we feel is unconstitutional and try to repeal that and make that illegal.”

UNR vice president Rita Laden says she supports the zones. “If there are demonstrations being held too near an academic building, and the teacher’s not able to teach, and the students aren’t able to learn, that presents an issue because our first mission is to learn. And secondly, any time there’s a demonstration, I think that depending on how many people show up and depending on where it is, people can potentially get hurt.”

After the rally concluded, a forum in the JTSU was held at 8 p.m. to formally discuss the matter. According to a Nevada Sagebrush article by Annie Flanzraich, www.nevadasagebrush.com, the ACLU has submitted a resolution to the ASUN senate to remove the free speech zones and allow the entire campus to be a free speech zone with restrictions on buildings and other select areas. Action has not yet been taken.

There are other campus restrictions on speech. Bulletin boards are policed for approval stamps. Campaigns for student office can’t begin before the student government says they do. The residence hall handbook contains a speech code that bars “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.” It also bans “any behaviors which demonstrate an inability to abide by the requirements for group living,” vague language which can be used to circumscribe a wide variety of conduct or expression.

The free speech rally offered promise that student involvement and activism on campus might again return. As part of Progressive Awareness Week, sponsored by the Progressive Organization Council and many other student clubs, the free speech rally was flanked throughout the week by raising awareness for other campus issues.