Former Nevada ACLU Head: “Those Who Would Stifle Speech Should Beware”

SAMANTHA HARRIS, THEFIRE.ORG

Students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) are calling for the head of George Buch, a part-time math instructor at UNLV, after he joked on Facebook that he would alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement about any undocumented students in his class. The student activists have demanded a meeting with UNLV President Len Jessup about the issue, and according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, President Jessup will be meeting with them while the administration “thoroughly reviews” the students’ complaint against Buch.

Gary Peck, former executive director of the Nevada ACLU, has a stellar editorial in the Review-Journal this week on why censorship is the wrong response to ideas you disagree with, and how Nevada’s colleges and universities must do better when it comes to supporting free speech on campus. Peck, as some longtime FIRE readers may remember, was instrumental in helping persuade the University of Nevada, Reno to abolish its free speech zone back in 2006.

As Peck notes, both Buch’s comments and the calls for his termination, “however misguided,” are protected speech. The problem is that, as in so many of these cases, the administration “predictably announced they would investigate the affair and decide whether to discipline Mr. Buch,” and has remained “remarkably muted concerning the free speech rights of its faculty, students, administrators and community members who might venture onto campus.”

Peck also points out the irony that the students calling for the university to punish Buch’s protected speech had to do so inside of UNLV’s free speech zone:

How better to make plain the irony in all this, and how misguided it was, than to note that those who called for Mr. Buch’s ouster rushed to a “free speech zone” to express their outrage? The real outrage is that UNLV and other schools have created these spaces at all. One can hope only that the very idea of “free speech zones” would occasion protests, because these limits on free speech are anathema to the ethos of higher education.

At colleges and universities, the entire outdoor campus area should be open to free speech, no matter how insulting or offensive it might be, as long as it does not turn into behavior that is actually harassing. Only in limited areas where expressive activities would be logistically disruptive should they possibly be limited.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Peck points out how short-sighted it is to call for the censorship of those one disagrees with, and how greater free speech rights benefit everyone:

Those who would stifle speech should beware. When censorship is “normalized” as an acceptable way to shut down purportedly “bad” speech, it is probably relatively powerless people who will most often be gagged. And when anyone is gagged, it undercuts robust debate that should be the hallmark of democracy and that we hope will produce positive outcomes. For principled and practical reasons, that is not something anyone should defend.

You can read Peck’s excellent editorial in full here.


Used with the permission of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


Samantha Harris is Vice President of Policy Research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). MS Harris graduated from Princeton University with a degree in politics in 1999 and went on to earn her J.D. in 2002 from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she served on the editorial board of the Journal of Constitutional Law. Samantha joined FIRE in 2005 after serving as a law clerk for the late Honorable Jay C. Waldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and working as a litigation associate at the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP.

As Director of Policy Research, Samantha conducts extensive research on policies affecting speech at hundreds of colleges and universities and is the author of FIRE’s annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report. She has also spoken to students, faculty, and administrators around the country, and has represented FIRE publicly on national television and radio as well as in publications including Inside Higher Ed and the New York Post. When not defending free speech on campus, Samantha enjoys cooking, a cappella singing, and playing the flute and piano.