Free Speech (460)

The First Amendment and Higher Education Spring of 2013.

COMS 460 – Section 02 — Index number 20709  
Prof. Kovarik
Office hours MWF 11 – 12
Basement 704 Fairfax

email : wkovarik at radford dot edu

The class is intended to cover the history of universities and the idea of academic debate along with  issues of prior restraint, speech codes, defamation, and free speech zones.

Main web site:  RU Speechless

Rationale for the class

It has often been observed that a central goal of the university is to educate citizens so that they are capable of exercising their roles in a democracy. So, it can be argued,  the issues surrounding the First Amendment “strike at the very heart of the work of the academy.”

By virtue of its long tradition and history, Virginia has a special responsibility to advance the cause of religious freedom and political speech.  In fact, the ideas embedded in the Bill of Rights of 1791 were already articulated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. The overarching concept, as so eloquently expressed by Thomas Jefferson, was this:

No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be to leave open to him all the  avenues to truth.

According to First Amendment theory, even the  least attractive ideas should enter the marketplace of ideas in order to be contested. Even if completely false, the contrast serves the purpose, as John Stuart Mill said, of creating a greater appreciation for the truth.  Thus, the provision of a large forum with an appropriately level playing field should be a major goal for higher education.

Why a class? 

In the fall of 2011, a  class on the First Amendment and Higher Education was suggested as a way to open up discussion on Radford University’s many controversies about free speech and provide frames of reference to Constitutional law.

The controversies include:

  • Greek sign ordinance: The city of Radford is exercising prior restraint in requiring prior approval of the content of all signs and banners in the university district and enforcing this ordinance with the police department;
    • Radford University originally asked for the sign ordinance and, before that, enforced its own version of the sign ordinance.  It continues to support the city in its enforcement of the sign ordinance.
  • Stamp of Approval:   All bulletin board posters and mailbox fliers to student groups must have stamps of approval.
  • Zones for speech:  The spread of ideas is restricted to narrow zones and assigned exclusively to registered student clubs.

Class policies

This is an experimental class.  Each individual student’s contribution will be evaluated in terms of time spent on project work and commitment to research and action as part of the class.

Just as all students are free to express themselves in the class,  no student will be compelled to adopt any point of view they do not agree with.  Disagreement is welcome within reasonable boundaries that are limited only by simple class functionality.