The First Amendment and Higher Education project’s immediate origins involve reaction to a series of demonstrations at Radford University between 2010 and 2012.
In some of these demonstrations, students were exposed to gory depictions of aborted fetuses and belligerent pro-gun demonstrators attacking the “arrogance” of university rules that prohibiting guns on campus. The gun issue, especially, is a sore point for students and faculty following the Virgina Tech shootings of 2007.
The provocative content of the demonstrations led to debates in the fall of 2011 which, although useful, revolved around the merits of the speech content and its permissibility. For example, one repeated question involved whether such demonstrations should or should not be allowed.
It seemed to many observers that the debate could have been better grounded in an understanding of the Constitutional requirements placed on government relative to citizen expression, as well as in the historical role served by institutions of Higher Education in providing appropriate venues for all kinds of social comment.
This, at least, was the immediate impetus for the class.
However, the deeper and more problematic origins of the First Amendment class have involved the longstanding issues with polices concerning free speech at Radford University and on other campuses where security and educational missions experience a variety of relatively normal difficulties.
At Radford, policies that require students to obtain prior stamped approval of all printed posters (on campus) or all Greek signs (on or off campus) are among examples of outright prior restraint censorship that are unusual for a modern public university. There have also been complaints about ideological selectivity in granting free speech zone permits, and about the physical marginalization of student media from the campus.
Given that the Commonwealth of Virginia was the first laboratory for Thomas Jefferson’s “experiment” to test the idea that people “may be governed by reason and truth,” the appropriate moment and the pedagogically optimal venue to help create a larger appreciation for First Amendment values on campus seemed to have arrived.
One further point by way of introduction. It should also be noted that approaching a project of this depth and scope requires transparency, openness to a variety of contributions and a sense of scholarly humility. The idea of starting with a wiki — a document that can be edited by anyone who registers — seems in keeping with a transparent, open, scholarly approach.
As we begin, then, the most appropriate thought is the one expressed in the ancient Latin phrase: Utinam patribus nostris digni simus — May we be worthy of our forefathers.
– [Bill Kovarik], August 5, 2012.